I’m not sure when it started, but at some point I began to obsess about the mortadella pie, dubbed the Sneaky Link, at Pizza Serata. The infatuation was subtle at first. I’d review the menu from the Union Market district shop and maybe linger a little too long on the description of chef Chris Morgan’s pan pizza topped with folds of supple mortadella, each accented with pistachio pesto, red onion jam, pistachio powder and three kinds of cheese.
Before long, I realized I had come to resent ordering anything else that might interfere with my cravings for the Sneaky Link. I might have even called it “my precious” once, but never in public.
When I met some friends at Serata one afternoon, I felt like I couldn’t shut up about the pizza, just another boy with a schoolyard crush. Terms of endearment tumbled from my mouth as if Morgan’s pizza had always been part of my life, instead of a recent interloper into my don’t-try-this-at-home diet of burgers, hot chicken, Korean barbecue and ballpark concessions. It was strange: I couldn’t remember the last time I fell so quickly for a dish. I like to think I’m not so easy in matters of the stomach.
The mortadella pie’s seduction begins with its base, baked from a dough that Morgan developed with Anthony Falco, the pizzaiolo who made a name for himself at Roberta’s in Brooklyn before becoming a gun for hire with his own consulting firm. Their dough is a riff on focaccia, built with several flours including a small percentage of whole wheat bread flour from Wade’s Mill, a company that has been stone-grinding grains since George Washington was a lad. The whole wheat gives the dough a tad more color and a nuttier flavor than your classic focaccia.
Fermented 24 hours at room temperature with a sourdough starter, the dough is pressed into deep-dish pans and baked until the base attains a level of crispiness unknown to many focaccia breads, at least the cushiony ones with soft, adorable dimples. In a town bloated with pizza, chefs can struggle to stand out among the rounds, artisan or otherwise, but Morgan and Falco have created a singular bread for their pie — thick, squat and well-structured, the Astrodome of pizzas.
Falco created a mortadella sandwich for Serata — a pleasure worthy of its own pursuit — but Morgan took the components and adapted them to pizza, complete with the strategic addition of red onion jam. It’s this application of sweetness that places the Sneaky Link in a category all its own: The jam caresses the other toppings, softening their edges without blunting them completely. The mortadella pie is salty. It’s creamy. It’s sweet. It’s savory. It’s rich. It’s impossible to forget once you’ve polished off the first one.
Pizza Serata is a venture between Morgan and Ben Farahani, who are also among the partners in Yasmine, the kebab house inside the nearby Union Market food hall. But Serata is a partnership tucked inside another joint venture: The pizzeria shares a space with Crooked Run Fermentation, the Virginia-based producer responsible for a wide line of fermented beverages, including wine, hard seltzer, cider and beer. Yet only one selection is brewed in-house at the D.C. location, an Italian-style Pilsener named Alora, which has a surprisingly hoppy profile for such an easy-drinking beer.
Anyone who has visited Crooked Run’s location in Sterling understands the brewery’s relationship with food: Founders Lee Rogan and Jake Endres don’t rely on mobile vendors, parked curbside, to satisfy their customers’ hunger. They prefer fare prepared in-house, like the street foods sold by Señor Ramon Taqueria at the Sterling shop. The guys originally had chef Gerald Addison — Morgan’s culinary sidekick at Bammy’s, Yasmine and Little Chicken — penciled in to create a Belgian concept inside Crooked Run at Union Market. But when Addison had to back out, Morgan stepped up.
This wasn’t much of a stretch for Morgan. He had already been developing recipes for what would become Serata, an Italian term that evokes evenings — and maybe even the rushes you encounter during these unscripted hours under dark skies. The Sneaky Link was my first rush, but once I created some separation between me and that pie, I discovered others, too.
I’ve talked to Morgan numerous times over the years, first when he was a sous chef helping Jeremiah Langhorne source products for what would become the Dabney. I’ve come to appreciate Morgan’s approach to cooking and leading a kitchen: open-ended, and open to suggestion. He’s also not hung up on creating dining spaces where the price presents an immediate class barrier. He’s a suburban D.C. guy who grew up eating Pizza Hut and Papa John’s. He’s since cooked in some classy kitchens, but he’s not lost touch with simple pleasures, like dipping pizza crust in ranch dressing. He offers ranch among many dipping sauces at Serata. I never knew the joy of such a combination — until now. I feel so … sheltered.
What makes Serata special is Morgan’s ability to inject craft into seemingly simple dishes, like his La Tomatina, or tomato pie. He doesn’t just run Roma tomatoes through a mill for sauce. He has created an intense and condensed condiment that he calls the “flavor bomb.” It’s basically whole peeled tomatoes baked for hours with herbs and garlic under a layer of olive oil, then blitzed in a blender.
The kitchen drops small, strategic amounts of the flavor bomb into its basic tomato sauce, which doesn’t exactly detonate on first bite. In fact, I’d say it does the opposite: The enhanced sauce suggests comfort, something more aligned with slow-simmered Sunday gravy than simply milled tomatoes. It makes for a superb base no matter what pie it graces: La Tomatina, Cheesin’ (topped with house-stretched mozzarella and grana padano), the Picasso (pepperoni slices atop mozz and pecorino) or even the One Fish, Two Fish (a seriously pungent anchovy-and-garlic pie that benefits from the sauce’s boosted aromatics).
The flavor bomb is added to the house vodka sauce, too, which is spread across two more distinctive pies. The first is the Delbar, whose twin sauces (vodka and arrabiatta), garlic aioli and mozzarella become built-in dips for the fried calamari topping. The other is the Reading Terminal, a round topped with housemade porchetta, broccoli rabe, pickled cherry peppers, mozz and provolone, Morgan’s fever-dream homage to DiNic’s roast pork sandwich. Then there’s the Sorry Not Sorry, a pie that features spreadable nduja salami, kale, honey, oven-dried tomatoes, mozz and grana padano, a combination that sounds like a satire on bougie dining trends. It does, however, eat like a slice of heaven. Or maybe hell, given its level of heat.
If you can tear yourself away from the pizzas — and the Sneaky Link — you’ll find other good things to eat. Some are sandwich variations of signature pies, each built with the same focaccia used for the pizza. The Boss and the Mona Lisa, for instance, are basically reworkings of the porchetta and mortadella pies, respectively, not that there is anything basic about either. The arugula salad is a genuine highlight, a pile of peppery leaves accented with pickled red onions, roasted beets, whipped ricotta, red onion jam and pistachio powder. I could also eat a trough-load of the housemade stracciatella and the spinach and artichoke dip without any regret.
One of Morgan’s goals with Serata was to engineer pizza that travels well, a necessity given many of us like to zone out to Netflix with a spread of restaurant dishes delivered to our front doors. I put Morgan’s pies to the test multiple times, and they travel extremely well. They reheat okay, too, but at a cost: The added heat can dry out the crust, turning Morgan and Falco’s exquisite focaccia into something closer to breadsticks. These days, I prefer to eat Serata’s delivery pizza at room temperature, or a little warmer. I respect the pies too much to mistreat them.
550 Morse St. NE, inside Crooked Run Fermentation, 202-355-9010, pizzaserata.com.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday and Monday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Nearest Metro: NoMa-Gallaudet U, with a short walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $5 to $20 for all items on the menu.