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Posted at 7:56 AM ET, 12/21/2010

Eric Reid emerges at Del Ray Pizzeria

By Justin Rude

When Del Merei Grille, the charming Alexandria eatery known for its Southern comfort food, closed its doors in September, chef Eric Reid made two things very clear: he wasn't done in the kitchen, and he wanted to stay in the neighborhood. It didn't take him long to get what he wanted -- Reid is now the head chef at Del Ray Pizzeria & Sports Bar, a new family-friendly restaurant in the heart of Del Ray.

Del Ray Pizzeria had a bit of a rough start (diners complained about slow service and less than stellar pies). The 32-year-old chef took over on Oct. 19, only two weeks after the restaurant's opening, and he immediately closed the place down for a week to begin the process of re-structuring the kitchen. The first major step was bringing over most of his staff from the not-so-distant Del Merei days; the second was undoing the kitchen's reliance on outside work.

"We closed down for that week because nothing was being made in-house," Reid said, "When I was first observing the kitchen, I saw a cook preparing a kid's meal open a small orange packet. It turned out to be Stouffer's ready-made mac and cheese, and I thought to myself, 'You have got to be kidding me.' We are now making everything here." The food may be improving, but Reid hasn't converted everyone yet. "The Sysco rep pretty much hates me right now," he says, "And that's fine by me."

First-time restaurant owners Mike Mallon and Eric Dorn have given Reid a lot of freedom to play with the menu, as long as he sticks with the general pizzeria theme. He's moving away from the time- and labor-intensive deep-dish style pies that the restaurant opened with toward a thinner, more traditional crust, and he's expanded the pasta menu from three to eight choices. He also liberated an idle grill that had been storing pots and pans: it now turns out New York strip steaks accompanied by herbed Parmesan fries, good news for fans of his Reid's grill work at Del Merei. Another treat: the glorious "frickles" aren't on the menu, but they are available for anyone who knows to ask. I had really missed his crunchy, salty, slightly spicy fried butter pickles served with remoulade.

Unfortunately, the rest of the restaurant is a work in progress. The kitchen lacks a walk-in refrigerator, so it relies on multiple standard uprights, a setup that makes organization and storage a challenge. (On the plus side, "it means we make our pasta and pizza sauces fresh every day," the chef points out.) Reid also wants to make changes to the dining room by relocating a few televisions to the bar and eliminating unnecessary railings that break up the room.

Early next year, Reid hopes to debut a new menu in keeping with the Italian-American theme. He continues to experiment with pizzas, a new culinary territory for him. In addition to standard pizzeria offerings, choices include a pie layered with sliced strip steak, blue cheese, crispy shallots and truffle oil, and one with shrimp, tomato-basil pesto and Kalamata olives.

But don't expect him to abandon Del Merei Grill favorites entirely: the chef will return to his Southern comfort food roots for the restaurant's New Year's Eve special menu.

By Justin Rude  | December 21, 2010; 7:56 AM ET
Categories:  Restaurants  
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