When Tony Conte was in high school, he moved up from a dishwashing job to the craft of pizza making at the local “Best in Town” Italian restaurant. Though he came from an Italian background that personified old-world cooking traditions—with the whole family chipping in to make wine, tomato sauce, and sausage while tending to their backyard garden—it wasn’t exactly love. After high school, Conte set off for The Culinary Institute of America, and, he thought, away from pizza making for good.
His path in the culinary world took Conte from the kitchen of Sole e Luna in Westport, Connecticut, to Pesce, which he co-ran with his brother, to the restaurants of acclaimed French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten; finally landing him in an executive chef position at The Oval Room, conveniently located across Lafayette Square from The White House. During this remarkable culinary odyssey, Conte demonstrated a unique flexibility and desire for constant growth and ever-more masterful execution of new styles, earning him a spot on the contenders list for 2010’s James Beard Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic distinction.
Now, Conte is doing something dramatically different, while staying true to his upscale culinary roots, as well as his family’s cultural legacy. With the opening of Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana, Conte is coming home. And, surprising even himself, this homecoming will revolve around making the pizzas he swore off long ago, but with an upscale, Neapolitan twist.
“We’re going to start something new from something old,” Conte says. “It’s going back and re-thinking what I did way back when, and then taking the techniques and the vision of working for Jean-Georges (Vongerichten) and implementing it in a new medium. So we get to kind of reference back to all the years and working and try to create something unique and special based off of all of my experiences.”
Inferno’s décor serves not only as an ode to Conte’s personal experiences, but to the experiences of his whole family, with heritage pieces that trace back to his father’s native roots in the Naples area, to the Murano glass dragonfly mosaic above the wood-burning oven in honor of his late mother-in-law.
“We really wanted to connect the dots and have this place make sense, rather than just opening up the restaurant and saying, ‘okay, we’re going to serve this style of pizza and here we go,’” he says. “Obviously, it has more meaning than that to me, and there was a lot more thought put into it.”
The menu is also a joint celebration of Conte’s Italian roots and his current Gaithersburg, Maryland, home. To ensure his mastery of the Neapolitan style, Conte (ever the high-achiever), earned the designation of Vera Pizza Napoletana (VPN) from the Associazione Verace Pizza Neapoletanafor the new restaurant, making Inferno the only restaurant in Maryland to achieve the verification. Even within the strict authenticity standards required by the VPN mark, Conte is weaving in references to local cuisines in the restaurant’s ingredient list, satisfying those who are still craving the quality and ingenuity he brought to his dishes at The Oval Room.
In addition to pizza, he will have a daily offering of oven-roasted fish and meat from the establishment’s custom-tiled oven, along with select pasta dishes. The restaurant will feature custom-made pottery dishware and reclaimed wood sourced from western Maryland to emphasize the warmth, craft, and authentic sense of place in the high-energy, upscale-casual endeavor.
As a plus, Inferno will bring Conte closer to his family not just in spirit, but in distance, with his home just miles down the road.
“I’ve never worked as close to home, and now there are no limitations on what I can do with the menu—that’s been the exciting part of the whole thing,” he says. “It’s a completely new experience.”
Which is a statement that rings true not only for Conte, but for the many customers he has served and impressed over the course of his career, who will be looking forward to seeing what he cooks up in this brand new setting.
By Emily Byrd