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Review | Pizza and cocktails are simple, and just about perfect, at the Little Grand

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Sourdough is a fickle beast. Feed the starter just right and you’ll wind up with a remarkable product, airy and delicately tangy. Botch the process slightly and you’re left with a dull, depressing dough.

At the Little Grand, a “pizza bar” tucked into a small alley off H Street NE, every pie is built on a sourdough crust — a choice that has prompted several people to suggest to Soung Wiser that she and her fellow owners, David Batista (who doubles as her husband) and Joanna Brady, are “choosing to do this in the most difficult way possible.” They are well aware of the challenge, after nearly two years of running the joint.

But they stick with sourdough for the same reason anyone does: There is nothing quite like that flavor.

“There’s a depth and base to a bread product that you can only get from proper fermentation,” Wiser says, noting that the Little Grand’s crusts are made using a levain, or a flour-based mixture made from a starter that allows for more flexibility. “The complexity that sourdough brings in, paired with a bright tomato sauce, really great cheese, all of these things … I keep going back to the word ‘umami.’”

On a recent visit to the Little Grand, I was struck by the crust’s boldness. It held its punchy flavor and crispy form under the weight of the thick, garlicky puree that tops the tomato pie, a pairing that could have easily turned into a sopping mess.

The sourdough is about as complicated as it gets in these parts, where the overall approach, according to Wiser, otherwise tends to be about “keeping things simple.” The co-owners strive to emphasize quality over showmanship, a philosophy borrowed from a business Batista opened years ago: All Souls Bar in Shaw, a neighborhood spot beloved for its small, rotating selection of reliable cocktails.

The team initially envisioned the Little Grand as a spiritual sequel to All Souls, telling themselves they were simply opening “another bar that happens to have pizza,” Wiser says. In some ways, this remains true. The drinks are comparable, though the newer place levels up by serving classic cocktails in fancier stemware. Each establishment is a stone’s throw away from a bustling area — All Souls is a block from U Street — but maintains a cozy atmosphere thanks to warm lighting and limited seating.

But as the team began pondering what to serve at the Little Grand, it hit them: “Oh, no, we opened a restaurant.”

So food became the focus. They sought guidance from Bobby Hellen, a New York-based pizza whisperer known for his Sicilian pies, in coming up with what Wiser refers to as their “pizza identity.” While some menu offerings stay put — such the tomato pie or a gussied-up pepperoni — other combinations come and go based on the time of year. The staple white pizza, which balances mellow cheeses like ricotta and mozzarella with the much-sharper grana Padano and pecorino, can be upgraded to a “special white” starring seasonal produce. The roasted mushroom pizza, once a special white, was so popular that it became a permanent fixture. In late March, the vegetable rotation included kale.

The owners source the ingredients as locally as possible. The grass-fed beef in the meatballs, for instance, is raised on a Virginia pasture. Fresh ricotta from a Pennsylvania farm figures into one of the other non-pizza dishes offered on the menu: a small salad consisting of the cheese, thinly sliced radishes and slivers of apple, perked up with a blend of zesty vinaigrette, fresh mint and flaky sea salt. You might want this brightness to counter the rich meatballs or all those slices of pizza — though it is worth noting, as Wiser does, that most items served at the restaurant are “lighter than they appear.”

Which means you can swing by with friends, order a pizza or two, and pick at a few small plates while you’re at it. The menu pays homage to Wiser’s own snacking preferences with housemade “martini pickles,” a small bowl of vegetables that nods to her habit of munching on whatever pickled thing she can find — be it celery, olives or even kimchi — while sipping a martini at home.

The pizzas are served as 12-inch rounds or squares, though the latter option was briefly suspended so the team could figure out how to streamline the labor-intensive process by baking squares at the same temperature as the rounds. Wiser recommends coming in on the earlier side if you’re hankering for a square, as the current solution is to offer fewer each night so they can ensure each one is in tiptop shape.

“The world of sourdough gets nerdier and nerdier,” she says. “I’m still learning about it all the time.”

808 Seventh St. NE, 202-758-0783. littlegranddc.com.

Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Tuesday.

Nearest Metro: Union Station, with a 0.7-mile walk to the restaurant.

Prices: $5 to $33 for all items on the food menu.

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