Ema Rossi Pizzeria Napoletana: Driving Forces

As the pandemic continues to necessitate restaurant takeout, my car has become an outpost dining room. Seeds from everything bagels line the creases of the leather seats. Donut crumbs and tiny flecks of fried chicken skin can be detected on the carpet. These morsels are wiped away from week to week, but they are swiftly replaced by new food fragments.

The oil slick that currently greets me as I slide into the driver’s seat, is the runoff from a pepperoni pie from Ema Rossi Pizzeria Napoletana. A spritz of Formula 409 cleaner will remove the evidence from my car. But I can’t get that Margherita Piu pizza out of my head. The char, the chew, the tangy sauce, the ample slices of pepperoni, the thick and creamy mozzarella di bufala, and the touch of chili-infused honey for added zip. Perfection.

Ema Rossi Margherita Piu

Ema Rossi Margherita Piu

Chef Manuel Ruiz and his wife Kelly Habig opened Ema Rossi’s doors on July 1, 2020, replacing a Pizza Hut in the Rock Creek Village Center in Rockville. Restaurant ownership is a major risk in the best of circumstances. Imagine what it’s like during a pandemic. Despite challenges that seem insurmountable, Habig has a positive outlook.

“For year’s opening a restaurant has been our dream. We signed the lease in 2019. We gutted it and started fresh and made it our own. But of course, with Montgomery County permitting and construction delays it took quite a while to finish everything. Finally, in early 2020 we were pretty much ready to open and then COVID came. We put everything on hold. Finally by the summer as the cases started decreasing slightly, we bit the bullet and opened. So far, it’s been pretty good.  It’s not what we anticipated, but we’re making it work,” says Habig.”

There are multiple factors that contribute to the restaurant’s early success, not the least of which is destination-worthy Neapolitan-style pizza. The wood-burning oven was custom-made in Naples and will be a centerpiece of the restaurant’s decor, once indoor dining is permitted. For now it’s carryout, with a few outdoor tables and heat lamps.

Ema Rossi exterior

Ema Rossi exterior

Ema Rossi is named for Ruiz’s mother Emanuela, whose family emigrated from Umbria to Venezuela. Her love of cooking Italian recipes was passed on to her son.  Ruiz worked for years to get the dough just right. His patience paid off. The menu features seven varieties of red pizzas and five white.

I’m working my way through all the options. Funghi, with its blend of wild mushrooms, smoked mozzarella, fontina, thyme and truffle-balsamic reduction is destined for my regular rotation. I’m also a fan of Toscana, which incorporates toppings of roasted peppers, olives, red onion, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, and goat cheese.

Ema Rossi funghi

Ema Rossi Funghi (minus the slice I ate in the car)

Ema Rossi is a pizzeria, but don’t skip out on appetizers, salads, vegetables, and desserts. I like to round out my pizza order with burrata topped with chopped heirloom tomatoes and a side of crispy brussels sprouts. Other Italian delights include fried calamari, fried risotto, housemade meatballs, veal Bolognese, and pasta puttanesca. There will be a greater emphasis on pasta offerings moving forward, as customer response has been positive.

It’s not the best time to showcase hospitality, but it’s an important element of Ema Rossi’s mission. This comes naturally to Ruiz and Habig, who are both veterans of the industry on the service side. They met in 2005 as servers at Cactus Cantina in the District. He has been a manager at Guapo’s and Café Deluxe and she held the position at 2Amy’s Neopolitan Pizzeria. Habig left the industry for a time, while Ruiz stayed with it. Fostering a cohesive team and creating a family-friendly restaurant are critical to both.

“Takeout stays pretty good,” says Habig. But this type of pizza doesn’t really travel well, so it really is a testament to his pizza-making ability that people still really like it after driving home.  But it is a whole different experience when you’re able to sit and get the food fresh out of the oven and have it with a glass of Italian wine or local beers.”

The duo is getting creative to keep the business growing. They recently launched family meals. The current offering is lasagna that serves four. It comes with arugula salad or fire-roasted tomato soup, housemade garlic bread, and crème brulee. The meal is $60, or $80 with a bottle of wine.

Habig looks to the future: “We are crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. We are in survival mode. We’ll get through the winter and hopefully by the spring we will be okay.”

The couple are mission-driven and Ema Rossi Pizzeria is well positioned to make it through to the other side. I’m driven to do my part. I’ll be ordering pastas and small plates to enjoy at home. But I can’t rule out the occasional pizza feast in my car. Fortunately, paper towels and spray cleaner stand at the ready to assist.

Ema Rossi Pizzeria Napoletana, 5556 Norbeck Road, Rockville, MD (closed Monday)


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