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Covid-19 and allergies: Allergy season gets worse every year. Here’s why.

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The weather is warming. The flowers are blooming. Noses are running. Eyes are watering.

Amid a global pandemic, many miserable Americans are asking themselves: Is it allergies or Covid-19?

The list of coronavirus symptoms continues to get longer — fever, coughing, loss of smell, chills — and as it does, it overlaps with other health problems even more, making it harder to know what’s what. And with a shortage of Covid-19 tests, many people can’t be sure whether the pollen or the virus is behind their malaise.

At the same time, it’s likely to be another brutal year for allergies across the United States. Texas is bracing for its worst allergy season in years. States like Georgia and New York have already seen near-record pollen counts. And in Washington, DC, pollen spiked surprisingly early this year.

If you’re concerned about telling allergies apart from Covid-19, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology (AAAAI) has put together a handy chart comparing their symptoms, as well as signs of the common cold and influenza:

The main symptoms common to Covid-19 but not to allergies are fever, cough, and shortness of breath. However, many people with the coronavirus don’t experience any symptoms at all, and there is nothing precluding someone from having both allergies and the virus at the same time. The AAAAI says it’s important to continue managing allergies during the pandemic, and that it’s safe to use allergy control medicines like inhaled corticosteroids.

Now that it’s May, the US is moving away from peak tree pollen season and heading toward grass pollen season. So even more misery is in store. “Grass pollen sufferers will face a long and severe season into summer,” AccuWeather senior meteorologist Alan Reppert said in a report on the weather forecaster’s website.

Forecasters expect 2020 to be yet another above-average year for allergies, if not the worst year ever. Just like 2019, the year before that, the year before that, and the year before that.

Allergy season has become so predictably terrible that late-night comedians have taken to venting about warnings of the “pollen tsunami” or the “pollen vortex” or the “perfect storm for allergies.”

But it turns out there’s truth behind the bombast: Pollen, an allergy trigger for one in five Americans, is surging year after year. And a major driver behind this increase is climate change.

For instance, rising average temperatures are leading to a longer ragweed pollen season, as you can see here:

A 2019 paper published in The Lancet Planetary Health journal found that airborne pollen counts have increased around the world as average temperatures climbed. The majority of the 17 sites studied showed both an increase in the amount of pollen and longer pollen seasons over 20 years.

And the faster the climate changes, the worse it gets. That’s why residents of Alaska, which is warming twice as fast as the global average, now face especially high allergy risks.

Taken together over the long term, seasonal allergies present one of the most robust examples of how global warming increases health risks. Allergies, which are already a major health burden, will become an even larger drain on the economy.

“It’s very strong. In fact, I think there’s irrefutable data,” said Jeffrey Demain, director of the Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology Center of Alaska. “It’s become the model of health impacts of climate change.”

And since so many are afflicted — some estimates say up to 50 million Americans have nasal allergies — scientists and health officials are now trying to tease out the climate factors driving these risks in hopes of bringing some relief in the wake of growing pollen avalanches.

Here’s what scientists have figured out so far about the relationship between climate change and seasonal allergies.

Pollen is becoming impossible to avoid

Allergies occur when the body’s internal radar system locks onto the wrong target, causing the immune system to overreact to an otherwise harmless substance.

This can cause mild annoyances like hives or itchy eyes, or life-threatening issues like anaphylaxis, where blood pressure plummets and airways start swelling shut.

About 8 percent of US adults suffer from hay fever, also known as allergic rhinitis, brought on by pollen allergies. Most cases can be treated with antihistamines, but they cost the US between $3.4 billion and $11.2 billion each year just in direct medical expenses, with a substantially higher toll from lost productivity. Complications like pollen-induced asthma attacks have also proven fatal in some instances and lead to more than 20,000 emergency room visits each year in the US.

Pollen is a fine powder produced as part of the sexual reproductive cycle of many varieties of plants, including elm trees, ryegrass, and ragweed.

It’s released in response to environmental signals like temperature, precipitation, and sunlight. Grains of pollen range in size from 9 microns to 200 microns, so some types of pollen can travel deep into the lungs and cause irritation, even for people who don’t have allergies. High concentrations of pollen in the air trigger allergic reactions and can spread for miles, even indoors if structures are not sealed.

There are three big peaks in pollen production throughout the year. Trees like oak, ash, birch, and maple see pollen surges in the spring. Pollen from timothy grass, bluegrass, and orchard grass peaks over the summer, and ragweed pollen spikes in the fall.

For people who are sensitive to multiple varieties of pollen, it means there will be less relief during warmer weather as these seasons overlap.

We’re already seeing a strong signal of climate change in pollen-spewing plants

In general, pollen is emerging earlier in the year and the season is stretching out longer and longer, especially pollen from ragweed.

Ragweed is handy for studying the impacts of climate on pollen and allergies because it’s an annual plant, unlike trees or perennials. This allows scientists to separate out how variables like winter temperatures and rainfall in the preceding season influence ragweed pollen.

Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist who formerly worked at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, told Vox that the change in carbon dioxide concentrations from a preindustrial level of 280 parts per million to today’s concentrations of more than 400 ppm has led to a corresponding doubling in pollen production per plant of ragweed.

How does this happen? If you’ve looked at a bag or bottle of plant fertilizer, you may have noticed three numbers that represent the ratio of phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium inside. Different ratios encourage different aspects of a plant’s growth, like flowering or making seeds. Carbon dioxide is also an important nutrient for plants, though it’s not included in fertilizer (because it’s a gas). It turns out that higher carbon dioxide concentrations encourage plants to produce more pollen.

For ragweed, you can see a direct pollen response to increases in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere:

More pollen usually means more seeds, which means more ragweed in the next season. And warmer average temperatures mean that spring starts earlier and winter arrives later, giving pollen producers more time to spew their sneeze-inducing particles.

We can see the effects of CO2 on smaller scales as well. Researchers have found that grasses and ragweed plants increase their pollen production in response to localized surges in carbon dioxide, like from the exhaust of cars along a highway.

However, for other allergen sources like trees, the groundwork for a severe pollen season can be laid more than a year before the current season.

“What happens is if the tree during the previous year has had a ‘good season,’ it tends to load up on carbs so that in the spring, it has a lot of carbs to put out for flower production,” Ziska said. “When that happens, you can get a large bloom, and the consequences of that are inherent in the amount of pollen that’s being produced.”

The far north is getting hit the hardest

Alaska is warming so fast that computer models have had a hard time believing the results. That’s having huge consequences for allergy sufferers in the state, and not just from pollen.

Demain from the Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology Center of Alaska explained that rising temperatures are melting permafrost beneath Alaskan towns, causing moisture to seep into homes. This dampness then allows mold to grow, causing more people to seek treatment for mold allergies.

Stinging insects are also a mounting concern. Warmer winters mean that more yellow jackets and wasps are surviving the cold months, increasing the likelihood of Alaskans getting stung. In 2006, Anchorage saw a spike in the numbers of these insects and suffered its first two deaths ever due to insect sting allergies.

“It was so bad, they were canceling community outdoor events,” Demain said.

Looking at patterns of people seeking medical treatment from insect stings, Demain found that the increases grew starker going northward in Alaska, with the northernmost part of the state experiencing a 626 percent increase in insect bites and stings between 2004 and 2006 compared with the period between 1999 and 2001.

Nonetheless, pollen remains a huge concern in Alaska as well, though the main source is birch trees, not ragweed. Birch pollen around Anchorage can get so bad that even people without allergies get bogged down.

“For a ‘high’ pollen count, you need greater than 175 grains per cubic meter,” Demain said. “In Alaska, we get highs between 2,000 and 4,000 grains per cubic meter.”

In addition to the quantity of pollen, Demain noted that rising carbon dioxide concentrations increase the allergenic peptides on pollen. The peptides are the molecular signal that triggers the body’s immune system, so more peptides on a given pollen grain increase the severity of the allergy.

So it’s not just more pollen; the pollen itself is becoming more potent in causing an immune response.

For city dwellers, a big issue is that urban planners prefer to plant male trees, because they don’t produce seeds, pods, or fruit that can become litter. The downside is that male trees produce pollen that can trigger allergies.

Allergies are going to get way, way worse

Researchers estimate that pollen counts of all varieties will double by 2040 in some parts of the country, depending on what pathway the world takes on greenhouse gas emissions. Here’s how scientists project allergy risks from tree pollen will change in the eastern United States under a “high” greenhouse gas emissions scenario:

Here’s the trajectory for ragweed:

And here’s what to expect for grass pollen:

This means that regardless of your pollen of choice, the future holds more misery for allergy sufferers. And as the Covid-19 pandemic rages, it may be a long time before millions of Americans can breathe easy.

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1532 days ago
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An Underground Journey to the Heart of Retirement Processing

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Lawmakers and federal workforce advocacy groups on Wednesday all seemed to agree that in order to improve the government’s ability to recruit and retain employees, agencies must do a better job of compensating high performers and providing workplace flexibilities.

The House Oversight and Reform subcommittee on government operations held a hearing entitled NextGen Feds: Recruiting the Next Generation of Public Servants, seeking input on how to cope with the looming and long-feared retirement wave. But as always, there was disagreement over the best way to effect change, with conservatives favoring a wholesale overhaul of the General Schedule system in favor of performance based pay, and federal employee unions and Democrats advocating for better use of—and training for managers to use—existing authorities.

“With 99.9% of employees all receiving pay raises, a greater emphasis should be placed on truly performance-based raises, and limit the appeals process to within-agency appeals,” said Rachel Greszler, a research fellow for the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Some of the savings from that can then go toward increasing the pay for high-demand positions, in addition to special payments, signing bonuses and superior quality appointments.”

But National Treasury Employees Union National President Tony Reardon said there are avenues in the existing pay structure, but that a significant decrease in funding for the training of supervisors has left managers without the skills needed to utilize them. He cited an example at the Internal Revenue Service, where the training budget was cut by 85% in one year during the Obama administration.

“If you look at the IRS, up until 2014 I believe it was, 14% of bargaining unit employees received a quality step increase [instead of a regular step increase],” he said. “So instead of being a Grade 12 Step 9, you became a Step 10, or whatever, you got an additional step. The only way someone gets that is if the agency determines they are a high performer and are deserving of it. Right now, I believe the last numbers I saw, it was 3% or 4%. So I don’t believe we’re utilizing the tools that are already there.”

Greszler also suggested that, particularly for millennials who wish to be more “mobile” in their career over the years and may stay long enough to vest in defined benefit retirement programs, the government could allow new hires to opt to send pension contributions to direct pay or their Thrift Savings Plan accounts. Subcommittee Chairman Gerry Connolly, D-Va., seemed willing to entertain the notion.

“That’s a good point, we could at least be flexible about it,” he said. “Although you’d be amazed how quickly you approach retirement, so it’s good to start early.”

Another key to recruiting younger workers into the federal workforce, particularly in high demand fields like information technology and cybersecurity, is improving the non-salary benefits package. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., urged continued support of her bill that would provide 12 weeks of paid leave to men and women for the birth or adoption of a child, as well as to care for sick relatives or for a personal medical issue. That bill was included as part of the House version of the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, and is one of the provisions up for negotiation in conference committee.

“The federal workforce is aging and the economy is changing,” Maloney said. “Women are working more and more because they have to, because it takes two incomes to keep a family alive. More broadly, women serve as the sole or primary breadwinners in 40% of households with children under 18, and two-thirds of families depend on the wages of working moms . . . It’s an important and long overdue step to make the federal workforce better positioned to serve the American people today and into the future.”

Greszler said that the Heritage Foundation supports the establishment of paid family leave at federal agencies, but suggested it should be offset by getting rid of other forms of sick leave already available to federal workers.

“Companies like Target, Walmart, Starbucks and Lowes all provide paid family leave,” she said. “It makes sense for the federal government to provide paid family leave to workers, but it should replace the existing de facto paid leave system with unlimited sick leave accumulation as well as six weeks of advance sick leave.”

Robert Goldenkoff, director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office, said agencies must do a better job of implementing telework, which is increasingly becoming a key benefit that prospective employees look for in a job.

“While agencies may struggle to offer competitive salaries in certain labor markets, they can leverage telework and other robust work-life balance programs to meet workers’ needs for employment flexibility,” he said.

Despite repeated affirmation from the Office of Personnel Management that telework not only improves employee morale but increases productivity, several agencies under the Trump administration have severely rolled back the practice, particularly at the Agriculture, Education and Interior departments.

“Stats demonstrate that in agencies where telework is implemented in an aggressive and sustained way, this notion [where managers say], ‘If I can’t see you are you working?’ goes out the window, because they tend to be some of the most productive places to work,” said Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md. “When that culture of productivity takes hold, often spurred by telework, it spreads to the entire workforce whether they’re teleworking or not.”

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1576 days ago
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FDIC to offer buyouts, early retirements for 20% of its workforce

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The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation will offer buyouts to about 20% of its workforce in the coming weeks, the agency announced Thursday.

Around 1,200 eligible employees will receive Voluntary Early Retirement Authority (VERA) or Voluntary Separation Incentive Payment (VSIP) notices.

Buyouts are not a reduction-in-force or cost-cutting measure, FDIC officials said, and the moves primarily stem from a series of organizational reviews intended to streamline supervisory layers and address challenges associated with a rapidly aging workforce.

“Today’s announcement is part of a deliberate strategy to further reduce layers of management, acquire new skillsets and allow the agency to proactively address succession planning prior to any crisis or emergency situation,” Jelena McWilliams, FDIC chairwoman, said in a statement. “This program will enhance our agility, preparedness and technological transformation.”

The FDIC has about 5,800 employees, and 42% of them are at or near retirement age, the agency said Thursday. The situation is especially dire for FDIC management, where 60% of the agency’s senior executives and 58% of managers are retirement-eligible.

The FDIC inspector general in February notes

Mid-level and senior staff who agree to leave the agency will receive incentive payments worth up to six months of their salaries, the agency said. A small percentage of employees in administrative and clerical positions in the field will receive a full year’s salary, as well as career management, retraining and other services, the agency said.

The incentive payments are significantly higher than what most federal employees are familiar with. Under law, most agencies can offer incentive payments worth up to $25,000 for Title 5 employees, but financial regulatory agencies like the FDIC compensate their workforce differently than appropriated agencies.

Operationally sensitive positions, such as the FDIC examination workforce, are not eligible for buyouts, the agency said.

Eligible employees must apply for VERA/VSIP. The application period opens March 12 and will run through April 10, according to the agency.

FDIC employees approved for an early retirement or buyout will be notified May 4, and employees may begin to leave the agency by May 9 at the earliest.

The goal is to have separating employees leave or retire by June 6, though the agency may delay departures for some depending on mission or knowledge transfer needs.

The agency’s VERA/VSIP authority runs through 2021, but it will offer these buyouts only once, FDIC officials said.

The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents frontline FDIC employees across the country, said 600 of its bargaining unit employees are eligible for a buyout or early retirement.

It learned of the FDIC’s plans Monday and signed a memorandum of understanding with the agency, which describes the details of the VERA/VSIPs.

“While this option is certainly better than a reduction-in-force, we are concerned about employees having enough time to properly assess their options and fully prepare for this decision,” Tony Reardon, NTEU national president, said Thursday.

The FDIC will also close, consolidate and relocate several field offices as part of an ongoing effort to modernize its operations, the agency said.

Five field offices and one area office will eventually close its doors, the FDIC said. Another field office will relocate, and two or three field offices in close proximity to each other will be consolidated, the agency said.

The plans to offer buyouts and close some field offices stem from a series of organizational and functional reviews, which McWilliams began when she joined the agency back in 2018.

Those reviews began as an attempt to better understand the changing nature of the financial industry and evolved as the FDIC better understood the risks of an aging workforce.

It’s unclear whether FDIC will backfill all vacant positions, but each office and operational component has a plan to hire new talent with the skills they need, the agency said.

The agency said it didn’t have a target for how many eligible FDIC employees might accept the buyout offers.

About 20% of FDIC employees who received similar buyout or early-out notices have accepted past offers, though the agency said those workforce reshaping initiatives were truly an effort to downsize, not reskill and eliminate supervisory layers.

The FDIC’s retirement-eligible workforce was a recent point of a concern for the agency’s inspector general.

“Although historical FDIC projections show that employees may not retire on their eligibility date, this wave of potential retirements could deplete the FDIC’s institutional experience and knowledge, especially during a crisis,” the IG said in a February report. “Without proper succession planning strategies, these retirements can also result in leadership gaps.”

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1596 days ago
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Candidates Get Debate Messages Across With More Than Words

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Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg debate in October. Win McNamee/Getty Images
Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg debate in October. Win McNamee/Getty Images

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1623 days ago
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The best pizzas in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

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By Tim Carman
Tim Carman

Reporter focusing on national food issues; critic covering affordable and under-the-radar restaurants in the D.C. area.

| Photos by Laura Chase de Formigny
Jan. 28, 2020

If you had the desire, and the stomach capacity to handle all the dough, you could eat pizza daily for a month, and still not darken the doorway of every quality pizzeria in the D.C. area. But the thing is, even if you could visit every one, you’d still miss a lot a seriously inventive pies. I mean, chefs don’t limit themselves to one great pizza per storefront.

So this was my task: Eat more slices than humanly possible and identify the 10 best individual pizzas in Washington. The competition was stiff. I wasn’t just searching for novelty. I was searching for craft. I was searching for a good story and maybe even a pizza that said something about Washington.

The inspiration behind the 10 pizzas I ultimately picked is as varied as the pies themselves. One pizzaiolo was inspired by the work of a respected peer in New York City. Another leaned on an Italian tradition that dates back centuries. One just wanted to create a pizza to match the punny portmanteau floating around his brain: octopie.

If there’s a common element among the pizzas on this list, it’s the perfectionist nature of their creators. Consider Frank Linn, the chef and namesake behind Frankly … Pizza! in Kensington. His spinach pie was inspired by the Popeye once served at the now-shuttered Co., baker Jim Lahey’s much-beloved pizzeria in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood.

[The 25 best casual restaurants in the D.C. area]

“It was an interesting pizza, but it just was not balanced,” Linn says about Co.’s pepper-heavy pie. “It needed some work. … Spinach doesn’t really have much flavor anyway, but it’s good for you.”

Boasting three types of cheese, including a nutty Gruyere, Linn’s spinach pie probably won’t qualify as health food anytime soon. But like the other nine pizzas on this list, his creation demands more than deliciousness. It demands originality. It demands quality. It demands an attention to detail, down to the last half-teaspoon of fresh lemon juice drizzled on the round. It demands perfection in a bustling, high-volume environment that doesn’t exactly encourage it.

Nothing in life is perfect. But it’s not an exaggeration to say a few of the pizzas here come so very close.

Original pepperoni Detroit pizza at Red Light Bar

One key to great Detroit pizza, says chef Naomi Gallego, is to use Wisconsin brick cheese, which releases oil as it cooks. That oil, in turn, finds its way to the edges of the pan, putting a crispy edge on the focaccia-like pizza. The crackle is vital. It provides a necessary contrast to the crust’s light and airy interior, a duality that makes Detroit pizza so utterly seductive. A Michigan native, Gallego wanted to stay true to the roots of this workingman’s dish, so she refused to chef it up. You know, sub in fancy ingredients, cut down on the cheese or do anything that might imply the original was somehow inferior. Your order will be served on a baking rack, looking like the best Stouffer’s French-bread pizza you’ve ever seen. The cheese is browned. The edges of the pepperoni are charred. The thick sauce, fortified with herbs and tomato paste, is ladled down the middle, like a racing strip. Gallego, a partner at Red Light, says it’s nearly impossible to eat an entire Detroit pizza by yourself. But, believe me, you will try.

$15. 1401 R St. NW; 202-234-0400;redlightbardc.com.

Chef Michael Chambers sauces the top of a Detroit original pepperoni pizza at Red Light Bar.

Calabrese at 2 Amys Neapolitan Pizzeria

It’s true, says owner Peter Pastan: 2 Amys is no longer a card-carrying member of the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana, the organization that determines whether kitchens are following the strict rules for preparing Neapolitan pizza. An inspector apparently didn’t like that Pastan’s crew was forming pizzas on a peel, not on the counter. In the 2000s, the VPN designation helped 2 Amys separate from the pack and tell the story of Neapolitan pizzamaking traditions, but “I don’t think it makes a difference anymore,” Pastan says, “and actually it’s kind of nice not to explain things to people all the time.” Besides, Pastan doesn’t need the pizza police to verify that he has standards. Take his calabrese, a riff on an Italian classic. Pastan sources anchovies from Spain and kalamata olives from Italy. “I’ve tasted pretty much every anchovy out there,” Pastan says. “The vast majority of anchovies are terrible.” The kitchen doesn’t rinse or soak the fish, either, which can turn them mushy. These meaty fillets are fleshy, firm and full of clean anchovy flavor. They’re also not too salty, which is important. The sodium levels on this pie are assertive but not bloodthirsty.

$14.45. 3715 Macomb St. NW; 202-885-5700; 2amyspizza.com.

Enrique Mendoza fires up pizzas at 2Amys.

Cheese pizza at Vace Italian Delicatessen

The pizza at Vace, General Manager Diana Calcagno likes to remind people, is not New York-style, and it’s not Neapolitan-style. It’s Vace-style. The recipe came from Calcagno’s father, the late Valerio Calcagno, who mixed high-gluten flour into the dough so that when his rounds came out of the oven, they were hot, sturdy and crisp. You can hold a slice in your hand, and it remains almost parallel to the ground, defying the laws of gravity and the rules of foldable New York pizza. To sink your teeth into a Vace slice is to recall the thrill of the crunch, a pleasure nearly lost in a city beholden to ultrafine 00 flours and the soft, chewy crusts they produce. Many Washingtonians swear by Vace’s pepperoni or its white pie with onions, but I love the cheese pizza, its perfection buried in its simplicity and its engineering. As every regular knows, a Vace pie comes with the tomato sauce on top of the mozzarella, as if it were a thin-crust variation on Chicago deep dish. The approach allows you to savor the sweetness and acidity of the sauce, built with two tomatoes, and appreciate the woody perfume of the oregano. Forget the Jumbo slice. The Vace cheese slice is Washington’s iconic pizza.

$11 for medium, $13 for large.

3315 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-363-1999. 4705 Miller Ave., Bethesda, Md.; 301-654-6367; vaceitaliandeli.com.

The cheese pizza at Vace defies the laws of gravity and the rules of foldable New York pizza.

Chicago meatball at Della Barba

Who knew that Washington’s most versatile pizzamaker had spent the first two decades of his career disguised as a lawyer? Before he launched his Della Barba start-up, Joey Barber was a corporate defense attorney. He was probably very good at his job, but he’s a spectacular pizzaiolo. Exhibit A is his Chicago deep dish with meatballs, a five-pound beauty constructed with layers of dough, mozzarella, provolone, chunky tomato sauce and 16 ounces of housemade beef meatballs. The secret to Barber’s Chicago pie is the crust. He incorporates high-gluten flour into the dough, along with coarse cornmeal, to give the base a decided crunch. It transforms a style of pizza that’s too often described as a casserole into something crispy and extremely satisfying. Oh, he also bakes the dense round in butter, which doesn’t hurt. “I’m not even a big fan of Chicago pies. I just wanted to do one,” says Barber, a New Jersey native. “I figured D.C. needed it, because everybody is from somewhere else.” Fortunately for all of us, Barber has a small storefront coming this year on Capitol Hill because it can be a real pain picking up a pie from the Union Kitchen location.

$34. Union Kitchen, 1369 New York Ave. NE, 202-845-3033; dellabarbapizza.com.

Della Barba’s Chicago deep dish with meatballs pizza weighs five pounds.

Cacio e pepe at Stellina Pizzeria

The first time I heard about the cacio e pepe pizza at Stellina, I dismissed it as disposable fashion, a trendy construction that would con a few customers just because it played off the wildly popular pasta dish. By adding this pizza to my list, I will officially kick off my apology tour. I’ve tasted Stellina’s cacio e pepe pizza several times now, and I have come to the conclusion that it’s genius. If you ask chef Matteo Venini, it was also one tough pizza to engineer. “My concern was using 100 percent hard cheeses, like the black pepper pecorino or the pecorino Romano, on a pizza when you bake it at 700 degrees,” Venini says. “My concern was that the cheese was going to break at some point because the heat is too high,” which would lead to a pie with an oily, off-putting appearance. Venini’s solution was to combine the pasta’s traditional hard cheeses with softer ones, such as cacio de Roma and shredded mozzarella. The other key was the black pepper, which Venini’s team first toasts, low and slow, in an oven and then grinds by hand in a mortar. The process gives the peppercorns a smoky, almost balsalmic-like quality, Venini says. “Those flavors give a different dimension to the pizza,” he adds. One hundred percent, chef. One hundred percent.

$14. 399 Morse St. NE; 202-851-3995; stellinapizzeria.com .

Chef Matteo Venini makes a cacio e pepe pizza while Antonio Aleman stretches dough at Stellina Pizzeria.

Octopie at Tino’s Pizzeria

The beauty of the Octopie is that every component speaks with equal voice, which, when you think about it, is the antithesis of a pizza-making tradition that promotes the attributes of only one or two ingredients. This most democratic pie did not come about by accident. A former sous chef at the Inn at Little Washington, Logan Griffith tinkered with his toppings, and their portions, until he engineered a pizza in which every ingredient had its say: the tomato sauce, pesto, olives, preserved tomatoes, browned onions, parsley, crust and charred octopus, each one no more dominant than the other. To give you a sense of how architecturally balanced this pizza is, one day I ordered the Octopie and noticed that the preserved tomato was pushing around the other toppings, its tartness swelling into something almost authoritarian. I mentioned this to Griffith, who acknowledged the flaw. He said his supplier was out of the regular ingredient, and he had to sub in an inferior one, which had thrown off the pie’s delicate equilibrium.

$17. 3420 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-525-5311; tinospizzas.com.

Tino’s Octopie includes tomato sauce, pesto, olives, preserved tomatoes, browned onions, parsley and charred octopus.

Spinach pizza at Frankly … Pizza!

Frank Linn is almost apologetic about the name of his pizza, which tells you next to nothing about what will land on your table. The namesake ingredient isn’t a salad of greens piled high atop dough, sauce and cheese. The spinach leaves here are wilted and locked into place with a flow of hot, melted curds, a dizzying swirl of mozzarella and Gruyere dotted with microscopic sprinkles of hard Romano. The rest of the ingredients are nearly invisible to the eye, if not the palate: the caramelized onions, fresh garlic, lemon juice and a final flourish of fine Kosher salt right before serving. “You don’t really realize what you’re getting when you order that pizza,” Linn says. But then you bite into a slice, and this stealth pie reveals its full character. The sweetness, the acid, the char, the nuttiness, the creaminess, the saltiness, wave after wave of flavor until you suddenly understand that Linn has concocted a spinach pizza for those who don’t care all that much for spinach. Like him.

$13.50. 10417 Armory Ave., Kensington, Md., 301-832-1065; franklypizza.com.

Frankly. . . Pizza! has concocted a spinach pizza for those who don’t care all that much for spinach.

Margherita DOC at Pupatella Neapolitan Pizza

A couple of years ago, Enzo Algarme took some time away from his small pizza chain, the one with the multimillion-dollar expansion plans. He was overworked and overwhelmed. He used the time wisely. He rested, and he spent time with family. He also rejuvenated his love for Neapolitan pizza, with its history that dates from the 18th century. “I started making pizza at home more, and that’s, I think, where my knowledge grew more,” says the native of Naples. “During my time off, I was able to do more research and travel to Italy a lot more.” The chef is back in the kitchen full-time, and he’s incorporated some of his recent research into his pizza. He’s mixing a natural levain, or starter, into his dough and letting it ferment longer, almost three days in total, by the chef’s accounting. The results are apparent on first taste of Algarme’s Margherita pizza, one that had already ranked among the very best in market: The pillowy, salty and light crust has a slight tang, which informs every bite of a pie fashioned with the finest ingredients Naples has to offer.

$13. 5104 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va.; 571-312-7230; 1621 S. Walter Reed Dr., Arlington, Va.; pupatella.com.

Pupatella is mixing a natural levain, or starter, into its dough and letting it ferment longer, almost three days in total.

The Bentley at Timber Pizza

This honey of a pizza — a turn of phrase that’s more literal than you might realize — began life as the 809, a meaty pie that borrowed its name from the address for the Petworth pizzeria. The original invention — a white pie with crispy mortadella, prosciutto, mozzarella and Peruvian sweet peppers — “was really gross,” says chef Daniela Moreira. Moreira inherited this mess from Timber’s owners when they hired her to take over the kitchen. She quickly dismantled the 809 and rebuilt it into the Bentley, keeping only the crust, mozzarella and peppers. She replaced the mortadella and prosciutto with cured chorizo and spicy sopressata. She also added tomato sauce, a secondary cheese (provolone) and even infused Little Red Fox hot sauce into a honey, which glazes the surface of the pie like a wax shine on, well, a Bentley. If Moreira’s pizza misses a taste receptor, I’m not aware of it. The overhauled pie was named after Bentley’s Vintage Furniture and Collectibles, once located across the street from Timber. The shop is no more, but its name lives on in this superb pizza.

$16. 809 Upshur St. NW, 202-853-9746; timberpizza.com .

Timber Pizza, above, named the Bentley pizza for Bentley’s Vintage Furniture and Collectibles, once located across the street from the restaurant.

Marinara rustica at Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana

If you could scanTony Conte’s brain, you’d see that 99 percent of it is dedicated to building the perfect pizza dough. Every time I talk to the chef, he’s doing something slightly different. At present, he’s blending three kinds of flour, of varying types and grinds, which come together into a crust that almost defies description. Yes, it’s soft and puffy, with trapped pockets of charred, yeasty air. But the crust also has a teasing quality, as if its flavors and textures sweet talk you for a couple of tantalizing seconds, then disappear forever. The crust’s ghosting nature is cruel, and yet you willingly accept its cruelty for those few seconds of sheer pleasure. This base is so unique that I never want to bury it in toppings, which is why I turn to the marinara rustica. It features a thin layer of sauce, built with Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes as well as slow-roasted garlic, basil and an almost-invisible dusting of Parmesan. Conte has turned two of my favorite things — bread and garlic — into one of the best pizzas anywhere. And I do mean anywhere.

$10.12207 Darnestown Rd.,Darnestown, Md.; 301-963-0115; inferno-pizzeria.com.

Marinara rustica pizza at Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana is soft and puffy, with trapped pockets of charred, yeasty air.

Tim Carman is a food reporter at The Washington Post, where he has worked since 2010. Previously, he served for five years as food editor and columnist at Washington City Paper.


Design and development by Joanne Lee; Photo editing by Jennifer Beeson Gregory; Photos by Laura Chase de Formigny; Copy editing by Missy Khamvongsa; Produced by Camille Kilgore

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