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Matchbox, 713 H St., N.W., Washington D.C., (202) 289-4441 When the four partners behind Matchbox began converting a bare Chinatown storefront into a brick-oven pizza parlor in July 2002, they did nearly all the work themselves. Over 10 months, the crew ably transformed the narrow rectangular space into a three-story restaurant with a hip, industrial feel. They even built the dining tables. But when it came to crafting the wood-burning, brick pizza oven the partners took no chances. They hired a professional to construct an oven capable of reaching nearly 1,000 degrees. The hearth — and heart — of the restaurant had to be a near inferno to yield the thin, crisp crust that distinguishes great New York-style pizza. Though unlikely to fool a native New Yorker, Matchbox’s pizza is addictively light and flavorful. Most arrive slathered in spicy tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella. Additional toppings tend toward the traditional — pepperoni, sausage, onions, anchovies — with a few more exotic options like artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes. What’s more, the menu openly pays tribute to the Americanized pizza of the Big Apple, not the Italian original. There is no formaggio, for instance, only cheese. One of the restaurant’s more inventive concoctions, the “fire and smoke,” combines chipotle tomato sauce, smoked gouda, roasted red peppers, sweet onions, and fresh basil. Although the smoked gouda overwhelms the more delicate vegetables, the contrast in texture between the rich, creamy cheese and the crispy crust makes it a worthy selection. The “Q special” — named for partner Drew “Q” Kim, who created it — is a more harmonious composition, topped with herb-marinated chicken, portabello mushrooms, and roasted red peppers. We also liked the sausage and onion, a no-nonsense “za” featuring plump chunks of sweet Italian sausage the size of marbles. Small pizzas cost $10 to $12 and are cut into six slices. Large pizzas range from $15 to $17 for eight slices. Count on needing at least four pieces per person for a good meal. Incidentally, Matchbox leftovers pass the ultimate pizza test — they taste excellent reheated the next day. In addition to pizza, Chef Graig Glufling — a former sous-chef at upscale D.C. establishments including the Tabard Inn, Vidalia, and, most recently, Poste — turns out reliable meat and seafood. Perhaps the best thing on the menu are those ubiquitous mini-burgers that have cropped up at bars all over Washington. Matchbox keeps it simple: expertly cooked morsels, topped with a pickle, and served on lightly sweet rolls in a tangle of delicate onion rings. Three mini-burgers cost $6; six, $9; and nine, $12. The steamed mussel appetizer proved less agreeable. While a shaved fennel slaw topping was tasty, the dried-out texture of the mussels suggested too lengthy a stop under the heat lamp. For a lighter start, salads are available in appetizer or entree portions. Diners in the mood for something more refined will appreciate a spicy pecan-crusted chicken breast atop near-perfect mashed potatoes — rich and dense, the earthy potato flavor unobscured by too much cream or butter. The grilled salmon dish, however, seems like it was thrown together from leftovers and suffers from lack of focus. Though the fish itself was well-prepared, it was diminished by disjointed accompaniments: sauteed spinach, green lentils, salad greens, and unappealing strips of fried salmon skin. Service at Matchbox is usually friendly and attentive, though servers sometimes seem unavailable as they scurry up and down the stairs between their tables and the restaurant’s two kitchens. Two or three of the four founders seem to be at the restaurant at all times, running food or pitching in behind the bar. Sadly, the hands-on management doesn’t always mean good service, particularly as the 75-seat restaurant has grown increasingly busy. Matchbox accepts reservations for parties of six or more. And indeed, in our case, the host cheerfully took down a lunch reservation for eight. When we arrived, however, the restaurant proved unable to honor our reservation. (And that is really the most important part of a reservation, the honoring.) Still, Matchbox’s spirited New York-style pizza, moderate prices, and creative cocktail menu seem likely to make it a neighborhood favorite. — Vanessa Blum is a reporter at Legal Times and Phillip Dubé is an attorney at D.C.’s Covington & Burling

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