If you’re looking to quickly stand out on the Washington dining scene, Italian cuisine may not be the best way to go.  Even before the restaurant boom of the past fifteen years, DC has had its share of quality Italian chefs and restaurants: Roberto Donna and his various incarnations of Galileo, the “pasta mamas” of Filomena and Fabio Trabocchi’s Maestro are just a few that readily spring to mind.  The field is even more crowded today, with newcomers like Casa Nonna, Carmine’s and Roberto Donna’s newest Galileo competing with long-time favorites.

Ari Gejdenson and Ralph Lee knew all that – they both grew up in the area before making their separate ways to Florence.  They have since returned, bringing with them Acqua al 2 (the 2 is pronounced in Italian as “du-ay”).    This is the second American outpost of the Florentine original – the first was in San Diego, naturally – and it’s a welcome addition to the restaurant options around Eastern Market.  I recently had a chance to check them out with a coworker and a friend who is already well on her way to becoming a regular despite the fact that the restaurant has barely been open six months.

Mural painted on the wall outside the window

We knew we wanted to experience a broad range of dishes – apparently Acqua al 2 knew it, as well.  The first few items on their menu are assaggi, sampler platters featuring varieties of pasta, steaks, and even desserts.  The Assaggio di Primi gave us a chance to try five of their vegetarian pasta options in portions scalable to fit the number of diners in our party.  All we had to do was sit back and enjoy the ride.

Details on the dishes we tasted after the jump. (more…)

In Italian-American family celebrations, there’s a concept known as abondanza.  The direct translation, as you may have guessed, is “abundance.”  But the more realistic translation as embodied by my mother’s approach to cooking is “make sure you’ve prepared enough of each dish so that if EVERY guest were to eat ONLY that dish, there would still be enough for everyone to be satisfied.”  It is in this spirit that Carmine’s arrives in Penn Quarter.

Carmine’s has become something of a New York institution over the past twenty years, a family-style restaurant that manages to balance a more refined atmosphere with a traditional “red sauce” menu.  Portions are huge, with each entree easily serving four, five or even six people.  Assuming guests play it smart and limit themselves to an entree or two for every four diners, it’s entirely possible to leave without dropping a small fortune as most entrees are priced between $20 and $30.

As of last night, Carmine’s is open for business – they’ll be offering lunch service as well starting today.  And I was especially impressed to see that they’ve wasted no time jumping into the Washington restaurant scene: Carmine’s is participating in Restaurant Week (August 16-22) for both lunch and dinner.  No word yet on what they’ll be offering, but it’s commendable that they’re participating so soon after opening.

We had a chance to take a look around the restaurant before last night’s dinner service, and we made sure to grab some pictures for you.  After the jump, take a look at Carmine’s studiously mismatched chandeliers, their ubiquitous menu boards (in lieu of individual menus) and a bar and lounge that are wired to accommodate even the busiest guests.

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The changes that have altered the American restaurant scene over the last thirty years are staggering. No less staggering is the fact that going back those thirty years now lands us squarely in 1980.  I remember the 80s!

Along the way, our approach to ‘ethnic’ foods has undergone a significant shift of its own.  Just as we’ve come to value regional specialties and local ingredients in our own cooking, we’ve developed an appreciation for the fact that very few countries have a single national cuisine.  For me, that change is most noticeable in Italian restaurants.

Today, you’re far more likely to find an Italian restaurant focusing on the cuisine of Calabria or the seafood of Sicily than you are to find a one-size-fits-all red sauce joint.  It’s a mark of respect – we’re acknowledging that the various kingdoms and nation-states that eventually came together to form Italy had (and still have) their own culinary traditions and specialties.  But sometimes you just long for the classics: fettucine alfredo, insalata caprese, veal scallopine.

Sure, you could go to the Olive Garden to scratch that itch, but it’s far more fulfilling to seek out the real deal.  Thankfully, Washingtonians need only head into Old Town Alexandria to find the genuine article alive and well on King Street.  Landini Brothers has been owned and operated by the eponymous siblings and their children since 1979, and it shows through in everything.  Everything.

A taste of Italian-American tradition after the jump. (more…)

Mangialardo FrontLast year, we tipped you off to Taqueria Nacional, Ann Cashion’s Mexican carryout whose limited hours justify a sick day just to check them out.  This time, we’re here to clue you in to some of the best Italian sandwiches you’ll find inside the District.  You just need to be able to get there by 3 PM on a weekday if you want to try them yourself.

Mangialardo & Sons has been in the sandwich-making business for more than fifty years now.  What started as a typical Italian general store (picture A. Litteri with less floor space) has since edited its offerings significantly.  There are a few products for sale on the shelves that line the walls, but Mangialardo’s is now a sub shop, first and foremost. 

Walk in and take a deep breath – if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a whiff of the marinara sauce they use for the meatball and pizza sandwiches.  Head over to the coolers that line the right-hand wall – in among the sodas and other beverages you’ll see classic sides like macaroni salad and cole slaw as well as some more authentically Italian offerings like olives and stuffed peppers.

But enough dawdling – you’ve come for the sandwiches, piled high with cold cuts and bearing names like the “G-Man” and the “Super Sub.”  The names may be unique to Mangialardo’s, but the flavors are the ones you’ve come to expect in classic Italian deli sandwiches up and down the East Coast. 

So what makes them worth a special trip?  Find out after the jump. (more…)

Siroc ExteriorLet’s be honest…even with all the rain, this has been a pretty sweet late spring and early summer.  We’ve had some beautiful days (and evenings) and we’ve even avoided the stifling humidity that usually settles in toward the end of May and sticks around until late September.

If you’ve got the opportunity, you owe it to yourself to do a couple of outdoor lunches before it’s too unpleasant.  And if you’re near the White House, there’s a relatively new outdoor dining option – the modern-meets-classic-Mediterranean Siroc.  With a fenced-in patio that faces McPherson Square, Siroc provides a great chance to enjoy the outdoors in an upscale setting.

Beef CarpaccioA few weeks ago, I had the chance to meet a business associate for lunch.  We had both heard good things about Siroc’s menu, so we decided to meet there and give it a shot.  The weather was too good to ignore, so we opted for a table outside.  With a refreshing sparkling water in hand, we turned our attention to the lunch options.

The Mediterranean influences came through loud and clear time after time.  Beef carpaccio, housemade sausages, octopus in pesto, panini served on ciabatta or focaccia – all of them caught our eyes and made us wrestle with our decisions.

What did we choose?  And how was it?  Find out after the jump. (more…)

potenzaWhen they open their doors for dinner service tonight, Potenza will culminate the process of revitalizing a corner of downtown DC whose most memorable recent tenant was a surprisingly resilient bikini shop.  This newest offering from the Stir Food Group (the folks who’ve given us Zola and the new Zola Wine & Kitchen), is actually a variety of concepts under one roof: a trattoria-style dining room, a bakery and a wine shop will all co-exist under the Potenza name by the time everything is up and running.

Located at the corner of 15th and H Streets, NW, just a few blocks from the White House, Potenza is in a prime location for an Obama date night.  And their menu, as developed by Executive Chef Bryan Moscatello and his staff, features a broad range of flavors that can generally be described as “rustic Italian.”  But chatting with partner Dan Mesches, it’s clear that Potenza doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed.  How you see them will likely depend on which of their concepts suits you best.

scrollwork-over-pewsOn Saturday afternoon, with mock service going on all around us, I met with Darcey Thomson for a walk through the (vast) space.  Ms. Thomson is the marketing manager for CORE Architecture & Design, the firm responsible for turning a warren of chopped up little storefronts into a cohesive, flowing space for dining, drinking, and otherwise enjoying yourself.  If that name sounds familiar, you may remember them from their work with Founding Farmers and their efforts to design the space to meet LEED certification standards for ‘green’ building.

More of our first look at Potenza, including some additional photos and details on their official opening dates (beyond tonight’s dinner) after the jump. (more…)

taylor-signWhen we took our first look at Taylor, back when they were in the final stages of getting ready to open, it was already pretty clear that the new gourmet deli and market was going to be a hit.  Between their commitment to authenticity and the lack of nearby competitors, however, Taylor has gotten off to an even better start than owners David Mazza and Casey Patten had hoped.

But how is the food, really?  Do they deliver on the promise of Philadelphia style and top-shelf ingredients, or are they benefiting from a relatively low bar when it comes to food offerings on H Street?

9th-streetNot to worry – Taylor comes through with flying colors (red, white and green, of course).  The 9th Street, their version of the classic Italian sub, packs in the flavor without overloading the Sarcone’s roll.  Their arancini, known here as “Rocky’s Risotto Balls,” are crisp and gooey at the same.  Even their salad offerings – so often relegated to afterthough status – rise to the occasion.  I may be a sucker for a good sandwich (and therefore an easy sell), but this place is earning its fan base.

Some more mouth-watering food photos and descriptions after the jump. (more…)