A quarter century ago, when partners Wendy Smith Born and James Barrett first put together their business plan for Metropolitan Bakery, they had a revolutionary idea: to make great artisan pizza. It surely would have been revolutionary back then, when their crusty French-style breads were a novel revelation and we were still a solid decade-plus away from the pizza boom that has since sounded across the region in waves of wood-fired Neapolitans, pizza trucks, pans of Roman taglios, old-school slice shops, Detroit-style deep dish (ordered exclusively through Instagram, of course), and the limited-edition gems made exclusively — although only for the next two weeks, sadly — by Fishtown's famed Joe Beddia.
We have a lot of great pies now. But leave it to Born and Barrett to enter the fray with a distinctive breadsmith's take — especially on the stellar crusts now emerging from the imported oven installed for the recent pizzeria revamp of their Metropolitan Cafe just south of Rittenhouse Square. What's different? Barrett is sourcing all local grains for his dough, and milling them in house daily. That freshness provides an exceptionally lively action to the crusts, as well as a delicate flakiness to the crunch, which also gains real depth of flavor from a blend of rye, whole heritage wheat (typically either Redeemer grown near Harrisburg or Appalachian from Lancaster), and a sourdough starter that takes a full day to ferment and rise.
The recipe was a collaboration between Barrett and the bakery's production manager, Andrew Verna, as they went for a combination of many styles, aiming for flavor, lightness, and crispness, but also a sturdiness that could survive delivery through Caviar. I haven't tried delivery yet. But the pies I sampled at the cafe were notable for their well-conceived quality toppings, from the depth of the slow-roasted tomato sauce on the Margherita, which is finished with creamy dollops of house-pulled stracciatella, to white pies topped with garlic crema, pungent Taleggio cheese, and fistfuls of good mushrooms, as well as pizza that bears toothsome nuggets of fresh Fiorella's sausage bolstered by an aromatic dose of fennel in multiple forms.
Not only has it brought an exceptional new pizza option, the revamp should help energize Metropolitan's underused little cafe space, which still offers a counter service array of lovely salads, soups, and sandwiches. Once it begins extending its hours from the current 7 to 9 p.m. in April, and the sidewalk fills with a couple of dozen more outdoor seats to complement the 16 inside, it will essentially give Rittenhouse Square an affordable new neighborhood BYOB supper option it sorely needs. It took only 25 years to happen, but it was worth the wait.
— Craig LaBan
Pizzas, $15-$17, Metropolitan Cafe, 264 S. 19th St., 215-545-6655; metropolitanbakery.com