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A bit of Italy in DC


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As I set to return to DC in a few days after an extended culinary adventure in Italy, I worry....will I find anywhere to eat in DC that closely resembles some of my favorite trattoria, osteria, pizzeria, pannineria, and ristorantes in Italy? The food, undoubtedly simple, fresh, and seasonal, is mostly hard to find in the states. There is a definate tendency in the states to put everything but the kitchen sink into a dish. But in Italy, long standing culinary traditions are evident as every food establishment serves the same combinations of 3 or 4 ingredients, and than it is left to the chef's hand to transform them into something magical. I would never expect to enjoy as much in DC something as simple as a plate of Gnocchi with tomato, olive oil, and mozzarella, or a ravioli filled with artichoke and brie cheese, tossed just with a little olive oil and parsley. Please folks, calm my nerves, and enlighten me on where I can pick up from where I left off when I return to DC.

Poste

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Having enjoyed all the same simple food in Italy many times, the answer is (unfortunately) you will not find what you desire. But in a few months the memories will fade and mediocre will again become acceptable.

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Spezie does look (atleast menu-wise), similar to somewhere in Italy. I will have to check it out. As far as Palena, indeed the cooking there is wonderful, kudos Frank, but not quite that traditional Italian simplicity. A thought I just had was that DC's equivalent to Italian snack bar food would be the many half-smoke stands that line the mall. For the most part, they are cheap, simple, and delish. I think what I have stumbled across here is a double edged sword. On one hand I will return to the numerous cuisines I have missed, i.e. japanese and mexican, but on the other hand I will once again have trouble figuring out where to go for that nice, simple, fresh, and inexpensive meal. A somewhat anomaly in DC.

Poste

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Is it really a surprise to anyone that to find that nice, fresh, seasonal, traditional, inexpensive Italian simplicity you have to be, you know, in the regions of Italy--partaking of their special ingredients sourced locally from their soil arranged into their familiar meal of small portions in their ambience? You might want to take a look at this interesting thread, called "Attacking Italian restaurants outside of Italy"

http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?showtopic=33017

I think the questions you should be asking yourself are now that you've seen and learned firsthand how these Italian guys seemingly manipulate and transform these same 3 or 4 local ingredients into something magical--how has that changed your outlook on cooking? Will you be able to reliably source local ingredients special enough back here in DC to enable you to as well and will your customers appreciate and support your efforts at the undoubtedly much higher cost? You'll have to do more shopping yourself or Fedex and pay much more for the ingredients if you're lucky enough to find them--because other chefs here and in other cities are also combing the greenmarkets and farmers and vendors for the truly good seasonal stuff. And once you do find it your customer, the average DC consumer still buys tomatoes in January based on how red, round and perfect they are--rather than buying in season and based on taste--and still prefers quantity (an over-sized entree, usually steak) versus a sequence of delicious small plates.

(And nice, simple, fresh and inexpensive meals, Italian and otherwise, became difficult to find in all major US food cities years ago, I'm afraid, not just DC.)

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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Is it really a surprise to anyone that to find that nice, fresh, seasonal, traditional, inexpensive Italian simplicity you have to be, you know, in the regions of Italy--partaking of their special ingredients sourced locally from their soil arranged into their familiar meal of small portions in their ambience?

Thank you. I feel like we keep having this conversation.

True Heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic.

It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost,

but the urge to serve others at whatever cost. -Arthur Ashe

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I would never expect to enjoy as much in DC something as simple as a plate of Gnocchi with tomato, olive oil, and mozzarella, or a ravioli filled with artichoke and brie cheese, tossed just with a little olive oil and parsley

The minute you mention "expect" or "enjoy" this says more about you--your subjective preferences--and your awareness of food and chefs--than it does about DC. Daniel, I don't mean this in a negative way, but there are many talented chefs in DC, some doing more simple enjoyable things and some doing more modern, more creative enjoyable things--sometimes it can be a creative French or Spanish or Japanese chef executing the simplest dish with the fewest ingredients. That's what's great about the American culinary scene. Whether you're able to enjoy that freedom, that diversity, is entirely up to you.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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The minute you mention "expect" or "enjoy" this says more about you--your subjective preferences--and your awareness of food and chefs--than it does about DC.  Daniel, I don't mean this in a negative way, but there are many talented chefs in DC, some doing more simple enjoyable things and some doing more modern, more creative enjoyable things--sometimes it can be a creative French or Spanish or Japanese chef executing the simplest dish with the fewest ingredients.  That's what's great about the American culinary scene. Whether you're able to enjoy that freedom, that diversity, is entirely up to you.

Whoa, I think you lost track of my intention here. I am looking for Italian. Ofcourse I am aware of the many chefs doing just that kind of ideal with other cuisines and interpretations. The first thing I ate when I got back last night was sushi....couldn't have been happier. Again, I was looking for Italian suggestions.

Oh, and thanks to DCMark for being blunt and humerous, your reply was probably the most on point response I got.

Poste

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The minute you mention "expect" or "enjoy" this says more about you--your subjective preferences--and your awareness of food and chefs--than it does about DC.  Daniel, I don't mean this in a negative way, but there are many talented chefs in DC, some doing more simple enjoyable things and some doing more modern, more creative enjoyable things--sometimes it can be a creative French or Spanish or Japanese chef executing the simplest dish with the fewest ingredients.  That's what's great about the American culinary scene. Whether you're able to enjoy that freedom, that diversity, is entirely up to you.

Whoa, I think you lost track of my intention here. I am looking for Italian. Ofcourse I am aware of the many chefs doing just that kind of ideal with other cuisines and interpretations. The first thing I ate when I got back last night was sushi....couldn't have been happier. Again, I was looking for Italian suggestions.

Oh, and thanks to DCMark for being blunt and humerous, your reply was probably the most on point response I got.

Well, the thing about eating Italian food in Italy is that you're playing to the strength of the local chefs. When you roll into an area, any area, and demand that they live up to the specialty of another place 4000 miles away, you've set yourself up for dissapointment. To paraphrase Chairman Mao, you have to be the fish that swims in the sea of life. Rather than demanding that DC (or anywhere) live up to expectations formed in Italy, you need to come into town without preconceptions and find our what works where you are now. Anything else is folly.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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  • 1 year later...

I live in DC, have family and a home in Abruzzo, Italy. The closest restaurant on the inexpensive to moderate side is Pasta Plus located in Laurel, Maryland, just a bit north of DC. The owner is from Teramo and the food is 99.8% authentic. Don't take my word for it though, just go. Buon appetito..

Casale in Abruzzo

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My boyfriend has spent some time in Italy and has mentioned that San Marco, at 18th and Kalorama (at least I think it's Kalorama), reminds him of the little neighborhood restaurants there.

It's nothing fancy, not at all, but they've got a lovely simple appetizer plate of sorpressata and fresh mozzarella, really great agnolotti in walnut sauce, and lots of inexpensive red wine to wash it down.

You might want to give them a try.

Cooking and writing and writing about cooking at the SIMMER blog

Pop culture commentary at Intrepid Media

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I'm partial to Trattoria Sorrento, in Bethesda. www.trattoriasorrento.com

It's owned by a nice Italian family, and while not quite the same as being there, it's the closest I've found.

Amici Miei in Potomac is also pretty good. Authentic wood-oven pizzas.

Edited by KVentura (log)
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I wasn't a big fan of Spezie overall (just one visit, admittedly). Nothing went horribly awry; I just didn't enjoy the experience. The front room, where the bar is, is quite nice - sunny and bright, albeit smoky. The dining room was depressing, like a 70s hotel breakfast room. Relatively empty when I was there.

As for the food. We loved their appetizers that included bufala mozzarella. Just really high quality ingredients. Entrees were pretty dull. The usual "oh, we need to have a filet, and a lamb and a tuna."

Good gelato.

Al Tiramisu is pretty good (ask for a price if you plan to order a special - trust me).

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dbortnick:

This may sound like an odd suggestion, but you might want to try Sonoma, a new restaurant on the Hill, for what you are looking for. I lived for several months in Turin and for a year in Bologna, and have returned to Italy many times in between. Sonoma's pasta dishes are very close to the "primi" you might find in a northern Italian restaurant or Osteria: moderately portioned, deeply flavored, and made with exceedingly fresh local ingredients in season. They are rich and flavorful without being fussy. Their wood-fired pizza is also supposed to be excellent (I have yet to try it myself). Their charcuterie platter is also identical to many such dishes you would expect to find in Italy. Quite a few times at Sonoma I have had olfactory recollections that have transported me back to my time in Italy more directly than any other restaurant I've tried in DC. (The ravioli with scamorza, in particular, was like a time machine.)

The rest of Sonoma's menu is also good, but less typically Italian. If you focus on their pasta dishes and charcuterie, I think your culinary culture shock will be much easier to handle.

Don’t you have a machine that puts food into the mouth and pushes it down?

--Nikita Khrushchev to Richard Nixon during the "Kitchen Debate" in Moscow, 1959

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My boyfriend has spent some time in Italy and has mentioned that San Marco, at 18th and Kalorama (at least I think it's Kalorama), reminds him of the little neighborhood restaurants there.

It's nothing fancy, not at all, but they've got a lovely simple appetizer plate of sorpressata and fresh mozzarella, really great agnolotti in walnut sauce, and lots of inexpensive red wine to wash it down.

You might want to give them a try.

The Hill's review from a couple weeks ago. Says it's only going to be open another year.

I also like Al Tiramisu. A bit cheaper is Sette Osteria, north of Dupont Circle.

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Closing?

SHITSHITSHITSHIT! (pardon me).

That place is a gem. Not super but always good and a real deal. Family place and I don't mean family portions. Its a 3 minute walk from my house and one of the only places in Adams Morgan you can walk in and get a table.

My boyfriend has spent some time in Italy and has mentioned that San Marco, at 18th and Kalorama (at least I think it's Kalorama), reminds him of the little neighborhood restaurants there.

It's nothing fancy, not at all, but they've got a lovely simple appetizer plate of sorpressata and fresh mozzarella, really great agnolotti in walnut sauce, and lots of inexpensive red wine to wash it down.

You might want to give them a try.

The Hill's review from a couple weeks ago. Says it's only going to be open another year.

I also like Al Tiramisu. A bit cheaper is Sette Osteria, north of Dupont Circle.

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I'm surpised nobody mention 2 Amy's (thread here). I think their pizza is pretty good (others rave) but I'm really impressed with their meats, cheeses and specials that get turned out by the guy (the other Mr. Amy?) behind the bar -- rabbit wrapped in pancetta and topped with a fruit compote, a chunk of mackeral served up with a sauce that cuts the oil but leaves the fish, slices of whatever meat is hanging along the wall. The food reeks of authenticity, if they aren't serving this stuff back in Italy, they should start.

And now we have Dino's (thread here), where this type of cooking isn't overshadowed by the pizza. Just opened, it's well worth a drop in, before it gets any more discovered than it already is.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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  • 2 weeks later...

dbortnick,

I noticed you had a post last year about Tosca:

How does that compare with what you're looking for? I'd be interested in your input.

I'm not dbortnick, but I want to chime in here.

We've eaten at Tosca about a half-dozen times, and have always had a good meal. (I'm a particular fan of their sommelier; she always manages to suggest appealing wines in our price range that pair wonderfully with the food.) However, Tosca is most definitely not the kind of authentic restaurant one finds in Italy. Tosca is an Italian restaurant or, more precisely, a pan-Italian restaurant. At Tosca, the menu reflects the cuisines of Sicily, the Veneto, Tuscany, Umbria, and Liguria. When I travel to Italy, I'd encounter those cuisines in separate restaurants, most often located in the region itself. In Italy, a restaurant serving the cuisine of many regions is likely to be catering to tourists.

I remember a particular meal eaten in Arezzo, a city in Eastern Tuscany, that demonstrated the risks of eating cuisines outside the chef's native competence. The owner assumed responsibility for ordering our meal, and we were only too happy to acquiesce. As a cavalcade of dishes came out of the kitchen, it became apparent that anything tomaotoey or seafoody was wonderful. Anything with rice was a disaster. We mentioned our experience to a friend who is a native Aretine, and she said, " No surprise. The restaurant is a Neapolitan restaurant." That said, why the owner was pushing dishes of wildly varying quality with equal pride is a mystery that lingers to this day. I'd happily dine at this restaurant again, but I'd be in charge of the ordering and I'd focus on Neapolitan dishes on the menu.

Now, this laser focus on simple preparations using indigenous ingredients has a down side. We Americans are used to variety, and a certain amount of boredom sets in after you've looked at the seventh menu offering mixed crostini, or prosciutto and melon, or mixed salumis for antepasti, for example.

We just got back from a week in Florence and a week in Umbria. The Umbrian restaurants offered duck , truffles, and a regional pasta to introduce a bit of variety, but there was a huge overlap in the cuisines. Next time, we'll have to plan our trip to include two more far-flung regions to get a bit more variety into our food. (Or visit Tuscany during Lent as I did in 2003 when fish and seafood dishes appeared on a special menu for each course.)

Karen Selwyn

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