Thinking Outside the Pizza Pan: Chef Ruth Gresser Reflects on Her Life of Pies

By Susan Able, Photography by Hannah Hudson HannahHudsonPhotography.EdibleDC.RuthGresser-15

A 20-year-and-more veteran of the pizza business, Ruth Gresser hasn’t stopped at winning over Washington, DC’s, hearts as a pizza maven with her beloved Pizza Paradiso. She published a cookbook in 2014, Kitchen Workshop-Pizza: Hands-on Cooking Lessons for Making Amazing Pizza at Home and in 2015 introduced a new concept pizza restaurant, Veloce, which serves breakfast pizza. She currently serves as president of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs (WCR). We joined her for coffee in her Silver Spring kitchen to catch up with this busy entrepreneur and artisan and see what she has going on with her home food program.

EDC: Hey, Ruth. Thanks for having us and sharing your fantastic kitchen. So what does a pizza person make on her night off? Not pizza, right?

Ruth: Definitely not pizza, although who gets tired of pizza? I love to roast a chicken from Fields of Athenry farm in Virginia. I take a 3-pound bird, rub it all over with fat or oil, then a spice rub, salt and pepper, start it at 450° upside down. A half an hour later I turn it over, add a cup of water to the pan, and lower the heat to 400°. It cooks about another hour, but the genius is that the water keeps it from smoking and turning on our fire alarm. I’d serve it with green beans and grilled eggplant; personally, I have to stay away from starches.

EDC: Was there anything that you thought you wanted to do before you started cooking?

Ruth: My mother was a caterer and my father owned a grocery store so we ate well as a kid. In college I thought I wanted to be a chemist until I realized that the chem labs smelled so awful that I couldn’t do it. I graduated as an econ major, but I remember saying to a friend that my dream job was to play the string bass or be a chef. When I graduated went to Vermont to study with Madeleine Kamman at her cooking school, she became my mentor and my major source of inspiration.

EDC: So, it’s spring. What foods do you crave right now?

Ruth: Believe it or not, shad. It was a huge family favorite; we really looked forward to its short season. A lot of people love shad roe, but my mother had this method of cooking the whole shad wrapped in foil at a low heat that dissolved all the bones. I still think about it.

EDC: Let’s talk farm markets and local sourcing. Where do you shop and where do you source for your restaurants?

Ruth: I personally go to the Takoma Park Farmers Market and Dupont FRESHFARM. For Paradiso, since the beginning we worked with Northern Neck Farms. Someone asked me in an interview about how I’ve stayed “relevant” and I think it is because we started sourcing locally in the ’90s before it was a thing and still do it now that it is an expectation by a lot of our customers. We also source from Smucker’s in Pennsylvania and from Fields of Athenry in Virginia.

EDC: What are the five things that you can’t live without in your fridge? In your pantry?

Ruth: My fridge always has eggs, butter, plain yogurt and raspberries. My pantry also has good olive oil, sherry vinegar and Red Boat’s salt, which has anchovies in it. You didn’t ask, but I couldn’t live without my Soda Stream machine.


EDC: Is there one food that you’re secretly obsessed with having at home?

Ruth: I don’t really obsess about food, but I’ll go on jags. I made fried chicken wings three times in the past week.

EDC: Are there personal quirks that people tease you about?

Ruth: Well, I drink this hot garlic water with lemon. It’s something I’ve been doing a while, and I’m used to it, but it does have a strong smell.

EDC: Where have been your best recent meals out?

Ruth: Crane & Turtle was really really good, and I’ve had a really great lunch at Centrolina.

EDC: You are president of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs—what was your most memorable experience of the past year?

Ruth: Well, I got to go down the Olympic bobsled run in Calgary when I visited a member’s restaurant. That was really something. I’ve been a member for many years and our local DC chapter started doing more events and I got more and more active. We’ve done a lot about engaging our members and putting educational programs in place. Our national conferences are tremendous in terms of networking, making those kinds of connections and education—the next one is coming up this April in Los Angeles.

EDC: Advice for women considering a career as chef?

Ruth: If you’re haven’t been in the industry, you need to work in the industry before you make that decision—my advice would be to work and get apprenticeships before you take formal culinary education. See if you like it. It’s not easy work.


EDC: What’s new and next for you?

Ruth: We launched Veloce last year, it’s downtown, it’s got breakfast pizza there and totally customizable pizzas that can be ready in minutes. And I’m really excited about our new project. In the fall we’re opening a new Pizza Paradiso in Hyattsville, MD, which will share space with a nonprofit, Art Works Now, which was founded by my wife, Barbara Johnson. So we’ll have art studios, a gallery, a pottery studio, an outdoor play area and then the restaurant space, Pizzeria Paradiso, which will have craft beer and pizza.

My two passions in life are art and food, so what could be better?