By Laura Hayes
The marker of any good Neapolitan pizza joint is its oven, and the one at Lena’s Wood-Fired Pizza & Tap coming to the Rosemount district of Alexandria (401 E. Braddock Road) is next-level: The bricks are made from raw materials from Italy including volcanic rock from the base of Mount Vesuvius. The 4,800-pound oven (which is the maximum weight of a Great White shark, to provide perspective) comes from Marra Forni, a family business based in Beltsville, Maryland.
Diners can sink their teeth into pizza when the restaurant opens in October, but corporate executive chef Graham Duncan says it will only be 60 percent of the menu. Also expect antipasti, housemade pasta, focaccia sandwiches and, his personal favorite, a 10-ounce meatball stuffed with mozzarella that you can order with spaghetti or without. “I hate to admit it, but I’ve been having one for lunch every day, but I can never finish it,” he says. As far as pizza, expect everything from straightforward classics to inventive takes like a Korean BBQ pie topped with short ribs and pickled vegetables.
Duncan oversees the kitchens for Alexandria Restaurant Partners restaurants, which include The Majestic and Virtue Feed & Grain. ARP will operate Lena’s Wood-Fired Pizza & Tap, too, but it’s owned by Jason Yates, son of Lena Yates, who is the inspiration behind the restaurant.
Yates was the daughter of Italian immigrants who came to the United States from Avellino, in the Campania region of Southern Italy. Yates’ mother made bullets during WWII, and her father was a Navy pilot. After the war, they settled in and became a real red sauce Italian family that always had a pot going on the stove. This is the feeling the team is trying to recreate at the restaurant—hence the photos of Lena and her family embellishing the walls.
Chef Mauro Molino, who went to culinary school in Torino, Italy, has been tapped to keep the red sauce flowing. The chef’s local resume includes Rustico Restaurant & Bar, The Hamilton and Lia’s. “He is the neatest guy, with European mannerisms,” Duncan says. “At the end of the night, he blows me a kiss and says ciao. That would be strange with anyone else I work with, but he has infectious enthusiasm and has been instrumental in giving the restaurant an authentic feel.”
Wash down Molino’s pizza and pasta with a selection from the wine list consisting of 40 Italian and American wines and 16 draft beers. While they expect a lively bar scene, Duncan says Lena’s will also serve as family friendly spot because of its location in a residential neighborhood.
The restaurant seats 100 people in the dining room, plus 68 on an expansive patio lit aglow by a fire pit. Lunch, dinner and weekend brunch will be offered.
Laura Hayes hails from Philly (but don’t hold it against her). She’s been covering the local dining scene for three years, and her work has been published in the Washington Post, Food Network, Washington City Paper, Arlington Magazine and more. Having lived in Japan for two years, she finds herself in a constant state of craving sushi. Laura always orders her favorite savory dish again for dessert and keeps her gut in check through lots of CrossFit classes.