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Federal Hill's &pizza a worthy competitor in Baltimore's fast-casual pizza scene

The ampersand logo of &pizza, found in tattoo form on many employees, symbolizes a "go anywhere, do anything" lifestyle, owner Michael Lastoria says — a mantra central to how the pizza shop does business.

The fast-casual chain, founded in Washington in 2012, has 15 stores in D.C., Maryland and Virginia with plans to expand. It opened its first Baltimore store in Federal Hill in late May.

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"Federal Hill is just the beginning," Lastoria said. "The city's energy, growing culinary landscape and history is really special."

Thanks to a recent boom in fast-casual pizza spots, Baltimoreans can now get their hands on custom pizzas, topped with everything from locally sourced ham to edamame, just minutes after placing their orders.

Lastoria has a passion for his stores and his staff, whom he affectionately calls "tribe members." The clan was certainly having a good time on our visit, greeting us cheerfully and trading quips with customers ordering the custom pizzas.

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When we were at the store, the place was hopping. The fast-casual pizza concept isn't new to Baltimore, with stores like Pie 360 in Canton and Blaze Pizza in the Inner Harbor, but &pizza has already developed a following.

At &pizza, diners can create their own pizza or order a specialty pie from "the hits" list. Both come in the store's signature rectangular shape. Customers can also get a housemade craft soda and finish their meal with a prepackaged cookie from the acclaimed Milk Bar bakery, founded by pastry chef Christina Tosi and David Chang of Momofuku.

Many of &pizza's items incorporate local products, such as pickled red onions from Washington-based Gordy's Pickle Jar and Sloppy Mama's cherry bomb sauce.

"We're about lifting up like-minded companies," Lastoria said. "They support us. We support them."

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In celebration of its latest location, &pizza offered the first five customers who were willing and eligible a free ampersand tattoo and free pizza for a year.

Scene & decor: The corner pizza shop is a bright and happy place with big windows and white subway tiles on the walls, one of which is covered with a floor-to-ceiling black ampersand. The communal and individual tables are also white and sport napkin holders with sayings like "pizza is the new juice" and "pizza, the bipartisan platform."

Appetizers: Not applicable.

Entrees: The quick-cook, rectangular pizzas (about 18 inches long and 6 inches wide) are $9.67, with gluten-free dough and shrimp costing extra. As fungi fans, we enjoyed the Moonstruck pie, which featured aromatic mushroom truffle oil, creamy garlic ricotta, fresh mozzarella, chunky mushrooms and grilled onions topped with goat cheese and fig balsamic vinegar. We also made our own pizza on an ancient grains crust with classic tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, roasted peppers, spicy chickpeas, basil, chicken and banana peppers; we were happy with the result. You can also add toppings after the pizza comes out of the oven, including sun-dried tomatoes, feta cheese and garlic sauce.

Drinks: The self-serve, craft fountain sodas ($2.60) in flavors like mango passion fruit, ginger berry lemonade and dark cherry cola are refreshingly delicious.

Service: Customers order pizza at a counter and watch it being made as they walk down the line toward a cashier. After paying for the food, they carry it to a table or take it to go.

Dessert: A couple of sweet pizzas ($9.67 each) are available. We were crazy about the Lori Lane, with white chocolate sauce, mixed berries (fresh blueberries, raspberries and strawberries), sweet dabs of ricotta and agave syrup. Next time we'll try the Elvis, featuring chocolate hazelnut peanut butter, banana, bacon and grape jam. We also devoured a terrific Milk Bar compost cookie ($2.60) with chocolate and butterscotch chips, graham crackers, potato chips, oats and more.

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