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Dec 03, 2010

Must Haves: Dolcezza gelato (and warmer weather)

1
Must Haves focuses on some of D.C.'s best dishes.

I don't have much of a sweet tooth. I like desserts well enough, but aside from a few slices of pumpkin and pecan pie during the holidays, I can generally take or leave the sweets.

That said, Dolcezza makes a mean gelato.

Looking at the picture above, you may assume that even in 40 degree weather I seek out the creamy dessert. I don't, but I did for this post. I've been meaning to swing by the Penn Quarter farmers' market where Dolcezza has a booth, but didn't get around to it until the temperature crashed the other day. 

For my trouble, I came away with a half pint of Crookneck Pumpkin gelato. Honestly, I could've taken the Mexican Coffee (which was spectacular), Tahitian Vanilla Bean or Valrhona Chocolate Amargo, too, but like I said, I have a weakness for pumpkin.

9 The poor woman manning the booth also had a selection of sorbets, including Heirloom Apple Cider and Honey Tangerine. They were good (especially the apple cider that's made with locally sourced apples), but I prefer the sorbet selection during the summer months when Dolcezza rolls out flavors like Mojito, Meyer Lemon Vodka and Strawberry Tequila.

I also prefer the summer months.

If I was a brighter man, I would've swung by one of Dolcezza's stores where I would have had a larger selection and heat. But I'm not a bright man. However, I am a man with pumpkin gelato, and that counts for something.

Categories: DC, Desserts, Farmers Markets, Italian, Must Haves, Penn Quarter
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Oct 19, 2009

Rustico: Best beer bar or church of the hopped and malted? Both, actually.

Rustico1

I am not a man of faith, but I have heard the word. I have gotten religion.

I have spoken with Greg Engert.

If ever there was a revivalist pushing the gospel of quality hops and barley, Brother Greg would be that man. His church would be Rustico.

For the past three years, Greg has been beer director for the Alexandria restaurant. In that time, his passion for beer -- craft and otherwise -- has turned the neighborhood eatery into one of the area's best beer bars.

Rustico5 The day I arrived to talk to Greg, he was getting the restaurant and his staff ready for Rustico's Oktobeerfest and the 3,000 eager beer drinkers who would descend on the place the next day. It looked like they were gearing up for a military campaign. Kegs, many, many kegs, of pumpkin beer and other fall seasonals were double stacked in the walk-in and along the bar's back wall. Out back, tables, coolers, taps and tents were stacked in the parking lot, ready for assembly.

This is the third year Rustico has put on the event and Greg was expecting the masses. He knows these people. So in addition to the Maerzens and harvest beers, Greg set up a couple cask condition ales. He was gilding the lily. The beer geeks and drinkers who'd show up the next day would be more than happy with 14 craft beers, but the two cask ales would put them over the top.

Greg knew this because it would put him over the top, too.

Rustico2 I realize Rustico is a restaurant, but look at the beer menu. Actually, when I sat down with Greg to talk about Rustico's beer program, he popped out of his chair to show me the menu. Rather than organize beers by style (pilsners, stouts, IPAs) or geography (British, German, etc.), Greg organizes them by flavor. Want something crisp? Try a Brooklyn Lager. How about a beer with a roasted flavor? Have a Founder's Breakfast Stout.

In fact, Greg's fingerprints are on all of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group's (NRG) properties. So if you like the beer lineup at Columbia Firehouse, thank Greg. EatBar? Thank Greg. And then there's the much-anticipated Birch & Barley and ChurchKey, an incredibly ambitious beer bar NRG is opening in D.C. Its success or failure will depend mightily on Greg.

Though these outlets, Greg has quietly spread the word about good beer. Beer enthusiasts who trek down to Rustico know there's a lot of craft beer to be had. But the people heading over to Vermillion can opt for craft over cocktails. The guy who'd be just as happy to have a Bud with his burger at Columbia Firehouse can try a better American beer instead.

And soon, all of us will have a lot more access to a lot more quality beer when Birch & Barley and ChurchKey opens on 14th Street. In a way, Birch & Barley and ChurchKey is the result of Rustico's success and Greg's meticulous work as beer director (Speaking of ChurchKey, check out the blog Greg launched. There's 2,000 words on glassware. This guy is into beer).

Talking to Greg about beer is like talking to Baptist minister about sin and Jesus Christ. He wants you to know why he does what he does. He wants people to enjoy the beer and Rustico as much as he does. Birch & Barley and ChurchKey may be the next big thing, but Greg fully intends for Rustico to remain a destination for beer geeks and regulars.

Although Rustico was launched in March 2006 as a restaurant and beer bar, for the first few months there wasn't consideration given to the beer selection. It lacked focus. The NRG folks recognized this and recruited Greg from the Brickskeller to improve the lineup.

He did.

Rustico3 Today, Rustico has 24 American crafts and imports on draft, as well as a beer engine, because they know from good beer. Local beers regularly find their way onto the taps (Clipper City's Big DIPA Double IPA was on the hand pump the last time I was there), but Greg doesn't necessarily emphasize them. Again, it's about the flavor.

In an effort to strike a balance with Rustico's beer line up, Greg maintains a steady rotation of flavors on draft and in the cooler. So the Hop, Roast, Malt, Smoke and other flavor categories may feature Troegs, Flying Dog and Starr Hill one day. And they may feature Samuel Smith, Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, and Left Hand the next. It all depends.

Speaking of Rustico's cooler, there's a lot of beer in there. More than 200 different beers as a matter of fact. And the cases of beer stacked on an upper shelf near the ceiling in the back? They haven't been forgotten. Rustico rigged the air conditioning system to keep the rare reserve bottles cool.

All this is well and good, but Birch & Barley and ChurchKey will have 50 beers on draft, and four different beer coolers will be kept at different temperatures to ensure that the beer stored inside will be at the optimum temperature, and the draft-line system will look like a great big beer organ. So why the hell would anyone in the District hump down the damn George Washington Parkway when they have all that right there?

Because it won't all be at the ChurchKey.

Sure, there will be a lot of different, very special beers at the new D.C. spot, but some things -- like the beer Greg brewed at the Sierra Nevada brewery -- will only be available at Rustico. And events like Oktobeerfest, brewer's dinners, private beer dinners and launch parties, will continue at Rustico. So will Greg.

Birch & Barley and ChurchKey is a big project, which Greg is personally and professionally invested in, but he plans to continue overseeing the beer lineups at all of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group's properties, including Rustico. And as long as Brother Greg is at the pulpit of the beer bar he made grand, that place is going to be alright.

Rustico4 Now, Rustico might be a great beer bar, but it ain't perfect. First, Rustico is a restaurant. As I've said before, I like my beer bars to be bars. Chef Steve Mannino might be doing some good work in Rustico's kitchen, but I'd prefer more division between the bar and restaurant. As it happens, Greg and Steve work to bring them together. In fact, Greg is quick to acknowledge the fact that Rustico is a restaurant first and a beer bar second.

Then there are the bartenders. This might be where the most work can be done. One night, the bartender is eager and friendly, introducing himself and attentive to our questions and needs. Another night, another bartender meanders behind the bar. When he gets around to taking our orders or to check our drinks, the 1,000 yard stare is locked in place. The guy may be there, but he's definitely not there. If Greg had a cadre of bartenders working as hard as the first guy, he'd have a hell of a team. As it is, he has a pretty mixed group: some mediocre, some outstanding.

Finally, there's the beer. Certainly, Rustico has one of the best selections of taps and bottles in the D.C. area. But I do have a few quibbles. Let's take the beer engine. My love for this machine is a matter of record. It's one of the greatest devices Western Civilization has ever created. However, it does require a skilled hand to operate. That might explain why during one visit when I ordered a cask ale, the bartender poured half my pint from a pitcher in the refrigerator and finished it off with the pump. When I asked why he did that, I was told it was to reduce waste. That didn't make sense to me then and it still doesn't now.

Also, I don't understand why there isn't a more specific focus on local breweries. One of the great things about the craft beer movement is the emphasis that's placed on supporting local brewers. To Greg's credit, I've always found a few local beers on draft, if not in the bottle. However, being local doesn't assure a brewery a spot in Rustico's lineup. I would hope that it would.

Score: 16 of 20 (beer: 7 of 8, atmosphere: 3 of 5, bartenders: 4 of 5, other elements 2 of 2)

The Best Beer Bars so far: Birreria Paradiso (17 of 20), The Galaxy Hut (16 of 20), and Franklin's (14 of 20)

Want to see more photos of Rustico? Check them out here.

Categories: Alexandria, Bar/Club, Beer, Italian, Pizza, Restaurant Reviews
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Oct 24, 2008

Catania Bakery: Fresh-Baked Italian Bread and Pastries Since 1932

Catania_van_panelIt's hard to think of a business that's been around for more than 75 years as a well-kept secret, but somehow Catania Bakery has managed to stay largely under the radar as the ranks of DC Foodies have continued to grow.  Maybe it's the location, or maybe the fact that the lion's share of their baked goods go to restaurants who fail to credit their source, but a search for them online reveals their website, a quick note about their croissants from the Post and a few neighborhood blogs that have posted about their baked goods.  You really won't find the profusion of coverage that you might expect about a place that has served the community since 1932.

Though you've probably never visited Catania's actual shop, there's a good chance you've tasted some of their goods.  If you've ever eaten a sandwich from A. Litteri or Mangialardo & Sons on Capitol Hill, or if you've tried the biscotti at one of several Italian restaurants throughout the city, then you've had Catania.  This is authentic baking, and it stands in stark contrast to the national chains' offerings in terms of crumb, crust and taste.

Catania_interiorWith restaurant sales providing their bread and butter, you might think they would be too busy to sell directly to the community.  But Catania Bakery continues the traditional retail aspect of the business that the Caruso family started back in the day, opening at 6 AM on Saturday mornings to sell pastries, croissants and muffins in addition to their biscotti and breads.  The smell of fresh baked bread and rich, buttery croissants draws you in from the street, reassuring you that you've found this out-of-the-way gem.

Catania_biscotti Walking in the door, you'll likely find yourself greeted by a friendly face.  It may even be Nicole Tramonte, who bought the business from the Carusos back in 1978.  She has run the bakery for the past thirty years, building up their restaurant clientele without forgetting the neighborhood.  Take the time to chat with whomever greets you and you'll learn plenty about the baked goods piled in front of you.  If you're in the mood for something sweet, try a pastry or pick up a bag of biscotti for snacking.  But if you're looking for quintessential Italian bread, complete with a dusting of semolina flour that rubs off in your hands, you'll need to get there early.  Once supplies are gone, that's all for the week.  Call it a reward for getting an early start to your weekend! 

Catania_exterior Getting to Catania is easier said than done, but it's well worth the trip.  The bakery is still located in its historic home at 1404 North Capitol Street, which is on the south-bound side of North Capitol just before you come to New York Avenue.  If you're coming by Metro, your best bet is to take the Red Line to New York Avenue and then walk along New York until you reach North Capitol.  If you're driving, do yourself a favor and take Florida Avenue to North Capitol and then head south, making sure to stay to the right as you approach the point where the North Capitol passes under New York.  Look for the sign in the window and another across the entrance to the building next door, and then head for the open door between them.

Catania's fresh baked goods are delicious, bringing back memories of growing up at the Jersey Shore.  They may not have access to the water that New Yorkers and Philadelphians swear give such distinctive tastes to their local breads, but it seems that Catania's has been doing something right for three quarters of a century.  Their low prices are an added bonus - you can walk out of Catania's with a half-dozen pastries, a bag of biscotti and a loaf of crusty Italian bread for less than ten dollars.  Good luck pulling that off at one of their competitors with locations throughout the city (or the country).

One word of caution before you go rushing out this weekend - call ahead to make sure they'll be open.  Unfortunately, Catania's was robbed (again) this past weekend and could not open last Saturday.  Hopefully they'll have everything squared away in time for this weekend, but there aren't a lot of other options in the neighborhood if you show up and find them closed.

Catania Bakery
1404 North Capitol Street, NW
(202) 332-5135
www.cataniabakery.com
Open Saturdays, 6 AM until sold out

Categories: Capitol Hill, Italian
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Jul 14, 2008

Oro Pomodoro

Dsc00174UPDATE 5/10/2009: Stay away from this place if you can at all help it. After a couple recent visits, I have sworn never to return. How many times do people have to send pizzas back at this place for the chefs to realize that they're not cooking the pizzas long enough. I saw at least two other tables around us send their pizzas back. I felt like calling the manager over and asking him to pick up one of my slices to try to eat it. The pizza was a soggy mess and it was impossible to pick up a piece without all the cheese just sliding off. I had a caesar salad that had ONE crouton and was missing the parmesan cheese. The dressing had way too much acid in it and the cold chunks of chicken were like eating leather . Anyway, just a warning. Now on with the original review...

Back in May, on one of my numerous trips to Rockville Town Square, I noticed this new Neapolitan Pizza restaurant called Oro Pomodoro right by the fountain that my son likes to play in. People seemed to be enjoying the pizza and pasta they were eating and it peaked my curiosity right away as I'm always looking for a good Neapolitan pizza place. Up until now I've dined there five times, and I'll probably continue to go back, mostly out of convenience.

The first time I visited Oro Pomodoro, I instinctively ordered a pizza. A good Margherita is a tell tale sign of a good Neapolitan Pizza place and will quickly tell you if the restaurant you're at knows it's shit or is just another 2 Amys wannabe. The pizza was brought to our table and I immediately noticed a pool of water/oil/undersirableness in the center.  Basically, there was too much cheese. There should not be a solid layer of cheese on a Neapolitan pizza, especially if they're using buffalo mozzarella.

In subsequent visits, despite ordering the pizza "well done", "extra crispy", "extra  charred", "burnt", (I literally tried all of those ordering techniques) the pizzas have come out the same way. Now I'm no pizzaiola, but this says to me that the oven is just not hot enough or the kitchen isn't cooking the pizzas long enough.

The pizza's saving grace a basic flavorful sauce and the dough, a perfect combination of salty chewiness that I've come to expect in a pizza crust. For those of you that are crust fiends like me, it's as good if not better than 2 Amys. No joke. Unfortunately, the crust and sauce can't make up for the overloading of cheese and under cooking. I really think if the kitchen gets the cheese and cooking time/oven temperature correct, Oro Pomodoro will produce excellent pizzas.

Oro Pomodoro received big points for their delicate, yet rich eggplant parmesan (although they need to  reduce the amount of sauce), saffron-flavored risotto balls, fresh yellow tomato salad, and plentiful cheese plate with a variety of Italian cheeses, but the rest of the menu, falls short of greatness. 

While the mozzarella bar is a noble attempt to gather favor among cheese heads like me, the portions of cheese are too small. I once ordered a melon and burrata salad of the cheese bar menu that was loaded with melon but had 6 small clumps of burrata. When you're paying an extra $3 for the burrata, you expect a little more than that on the plate. The bites that I had with the cheese were phenomenal, but I can't ignore the portion size. I wish they'd take some cheese off the pizzas and put it on their salads.

Pastas are mixed too, so order carefully. A ziti with pancetta and fava beans was a greasy mess (actually wasn't on the menu that last time I went), but the pears and robiola cheese ravioli topped with mascarpone cream was original and flavorful. I also thought the homemade rigatoni with a veal ragu is one of the better pastas I've had in a while.

Last, but not least, something new for the DC-Metro restaurant scene...Charging For Olive Oil. BWAH?! You can get samples of olive oil from different regions of Italy, varying in richness for about $3 each or a sampler for $6. Oro Pomodoro is very generous with bread because you get it with just about every dish, but what happened to just putting a bottle of olive oil on every table?

From the front of the house to the bus people, everyone seems rushed, but also attentive. What that means is that you may wait a while for that glass of wine, but they'll also notice when you only eat half of your salad. Along those same lines, the servers seem very willing to do the right thing when something comes out miscooked or wrong. 

I'll plan to keep returning to Oro Pomodoro with the deepest hopes that the pizza improves. In the mean time, I'll order carefully and carry a blow torch around with me.

Oro Pomodoro
33A Maryland Ave
Rockville, MD
Map
No Web Site Yet, but looks like it will be www.oropomodoro.com

Dress Code: Casual
Parking: Plenty of parking in the town square parking garages. No valet.
Smoking:
Not Allowed in Montgomery County
Closest Metro:
Rockville
Reservations:
 Tables are first come, first serve. The bar is usually empty.
Baby-Friendly Rating: 3 out of 4 diapers. It's a pizza place in the 'burbs, so Oro Pomodoro is very kid friendly. I'd give it 4 diapers if it wasn't for that a couple times I've had to go and find my own child seat.

Categories: Italian, Pizza, Restaurant Reviews, Rockville
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Jul 02, 2008

The Italian Store: Mangia!

Img_5120_2 A few months ago, I wrote about A. Litteri, a traditional Italian grocery store hidden among the warehouses of Northeast DC.  I praised its sandwiches, its deli counter, and its wide variety of Italian packaged goods.  Hopefully you've taken my advice and checked it out by now.

If you liked Litteri but found its hours inconvenient or its cluttered interior less than welcoming, then I would encourage you to check out The Italian Store, on Lee Highway in Arlington.  For almost thirty years now, The Italian Store has been bringing the same old-school vibe to Virginia in a brighter, more open space - one of the shops in a strip mall that also houses a Giant, a Starbucks and Wasabi-Sito.

Img_5121The Italian Store was opened by the Tramonte family in 1980, and they have been serving up delicious Italian subs as well as New York style pizza by the pie and the slice ever since.  To order a sandwich, guests take a number at the deli counter (which also offers a range of traditional deli meats and cheeses available by the pound).  When your number is called, you place your order from a list of eight "Philly style" sandwiches named after Italian destinations (the exceptions are the Muffuletta, which is a faithful recreation of the New Orleans delicacy, and the Philly).  Sandwiches come on hard or soft rolls with peppers, lettuce, tomato, onions, oregano and Italian dressing as standard condiments.  Prices for halves run either $6.69 or $6.99, and whole sandwiches are only a dollar more.

Img_5124If you want to skip the line, you can fax your order in ahead of time.  Or, if you'd simply prefer a slice, you can move to the back of the store and place an order at the pizza counter.   There you can choose from seven options that are available by the slice at all times, including a white pizza, a suprema, and even a pizza topped with chopped chicken breast.  Prices are a bit steep for a slice, ranging from $2.75 for plain to $3.99 for the suprema, but the portions they offer are enough to satisfy most appetites at lunch time.  If you want to satisfy multiple appetites, whole pies run $14.99 to $20.99 for a 16" large.

Img_5123_2Like Litteri, The Italian Store also serves as a terrific source for Italian specialty products, though their selection is more limited.  Chalk it up to editing or a desire to avoid overwhelming its customers, but The Italian Store limits itself to a handful of choices in each category, from pastas to cookies to Italian wines.  They still have the sorts of products that you are less likely to find in the typical grocery store (like the nearby Giant), but they may not have exactly the brand that your Grandma swore by.  Prices are competitive, with decent wines as low as $9.99.

Along the back wall, you'll find a row of refrigerator and freezer cases stocking some true standouts - a wide range of fresh and filled pastas from some of the best producers on the east coast, sauces made in-house, and even some traditional Italian entrees for those evenings when cooking just doesn't appeal.

When it comes to authentic Italian in Arlington, there aren't a lot of options.  Thankfully, this is one.  The Italian Store provides a great selection in a store that is at once traditional and up-to-date.  They may not boast seventy years in the same location yet, but their approach to their customers and their heritage is such that it's only a matter of time.

The Italian Store
3123 Lee Highway (in the
Arlington, VA  22201
(703) 528-6266
Monday-Friday 10 AM - 9 PM
Saturday 10 AM - 8 PM
Sunday 11 AM - 6 PM
www.italianstore.com

Categories: Arlington, Deli, Italian, Pizza, Subs, Wine
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Jun 18, 2008

Assaggi Mozzarella Bar: A First Look

When I heard that someone was opening a "mozzarella bar" in Bethesda last month, I was definitely intrigued.  Can a restaurant in an area with as many options as Bethesda hope to succeed with such a specialized concept?

AssaggiAs it turns out, Assaggi won't have to find out.  While they do plan to offer a full-service mozzarella bar complete with a cheese and charcuterie specialist who will be slicing and serving their various offerings, Assaggi is actually a very accessible Italian restaurant that features a variety of salads, pastas and meat dishes in addition to their signature mozzarrella tastings.  Taking over where Centro left off (and using a few similar design elements while incorporating a distinctly new feel), Assaggi provides a different taste of the Mediterranean.  In fact, the name of the restaurant means "taste" or "sample."

And taste we did.  We began with the Assagi di Mozzarella, which allowed us to sample three of the five mozzarella varieties on offer with a choice of four accompaniments.  The cheese options on the menu: burrata (a buffalo's milk mozzarella with a liquid curd center), ricotta di bufala (not a mozzarella, so we passed), authentic mozzarella di bufala from Italy, Bubalu Bubalis (a Southern California buffalo's milk cheese) and cow's milk mozzarella from local favorite Blue Ridge Dairy* (though they're referred to as "Blue Ridge Farms" on the menu).  The sides offered some unique flavors - a green tomato marmalade that was surprisingly chutney-like in its sweetness, a basil-marinated zucchini, and a roasted organic eggplant were all tasty and basic.  And although the 'fresh, seasonal tomato' was a bit underwhelming, it still managed to convey far more bite and flavor than many of the tomatoes currently available at local markets.

Centro_3 After our mozzarella sampling (which confirmed our love of burrata and the distinct difference in texture and taste between cow's milk mozzarella and buffalo's milk varieties), we tried some options from the rest of the menu.  My wife enjoyed the soup of the day, a gazpacho whose vegetables were so finely pureed and silky-smooth as to make us think that she was being served something with a cream base.  She also had a simple salad of butter lettuce, gorgonzola dolce and a lemon-oil dressing that allowed each of its components to show through to the best of their ability.  I opted for a pasta dish, choosing the orecchiette with ground sausage, air-dried ricotta and broccoli rabe.  The dish was sauced with a combination of a broccoli rabe pesto and a creamy 'deconstruction' of the sausage that gave it a wonderfully smoky and complex flavor without the usually oily texture that accompanies this kind of dish.  It was a really impressive presentation that reminded me of some very traditional favorite dishes but that took things in a more elegant direction.  Though the dessert menu seemed to offer a number of Italian restaurant staples, it also highlighted a few more "assaggi" choices - tastings of chocolate, sorbet, gelati, and biscotti.  We didn't take advantage of any of these, choosing to save them for future visits.

Throughout our meal, service was attentive and knowledgeable.  Questions were answered with confidence by Stephan, our waiter, and he seemed genuinely interested in hearing our thoughts on the food we had eaten.  When a discrepancy between the menu price of our mozzarella tasting and the price that appeared on our bill was pointed out, he remedied it without argument and thanked us for bringing it to his attention.

Our biggest disappointment came from the fact that the vaunted mozzarella bar is not yet functional.  Its two marble countertops stand at the ready, with glass cubicles that will provide temperature and humidity controlled storage for the signature cheeses as well as a high-end slicer that will prepare imported Italian prosciutto to order.  But the Big Cheese himself, the man who will oversee the cheese program for the restaurant, has not yet taken his position behind the counters.  For now, the cheeses are stored and prepared behind the scenes, in the kitchen.

I look forward to a second visit to Assaggi in the near future, both to experience the mozzarella bar in action and to see how the rest of the menu continues to develop.  As a first look, however, this experience was definitely a good start.

Assaggi Restaurant
4838 Bethesda Ave.
Bethesda, MD  20814
MAP
(301) 951-1988

====================

* - It seems that there was some confusion about the provenance of the local mozzarella being served at Assaggi during the first few weeks of service.  When I asked my server and then called a few days later to ask about the mozzarella that had been served to me, I was told both times that the cow's milk cheese came from "Blue Ridge Farms...Blue Ridge Creamery," that they take deliveries every few days and that Blue Ridge sells their mozzarella at local farmers' markets as well.  But I spoke to Paul Stephan of Blue Ridge at the Dupont Farmers' Market that weekend, and he assured me that he had not sold any mozzarella to Assaggi in at least three weeks. 

Blueridge When I spoke to chef/owner Domenico Cornacchia this week, he confirmed to me that they had not been stocking the Blue Ridge mozzarella for a few weeks while they waited for the mozzarella bar to come on line.  But he assured me (and Paul Stephan confirmed) that they are now bringing Blue Ridge products - including ricotta and smoked mozarella - on a regular basis.  Because the menus had been pre-printed, they continued to list the Blue Ridge product during its absence, but Cornacchia told me that staff had been informed that it was unavailable and that they were offering an Italian cow's milk cheese in its place.  My experience suggests that the message wasn't uniformly received.

Is this inherently problematic?  Only if you're truly passionate about cheese and eager to know what you're eating and where it comes from.  The mozzarella they served was definitely delicious, but it was not the local product I thought I was getting.

Categories: Bethesda, Cheese, Italian, Restaurant Openings
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Jan 11, 2008

A. Litteri, Inc. - Home of Italian Products

Img_3943 Since 1932, Washingtonians have been able to get a true taste of Italy at A. Litteri in Near Northeast, tucked away among the warehouses of the Florida Market that lies between New York Ave. and Florida Ave. near Gallaudet University.  Whether it's authentic balsamic vinegar, fresh pasta from Baltimore's Little Italy or mozzarella di bufala campana, you can find almost anything you're looking for in this off-the-beaten-path delicatessen.  And although it is not primarily a cheese shop (as my previous features have been), owner Mike DeFrancisci and his family pride themselves on carrying only the best and the freshest cheeses that Italy (and the rest of the world) have to offer.  When I'm looking for aged pecorino or fresh mozzarella, I know I can find it at Litteri's.

A true tour of A. Litteri must begin with directions - it's not the kind of place you'll stumble upon otherwise.  Located at 517 and 519 Morse St., NE, Litteri can be reached by taking 6th Street north from H Street, NE.  When you come to Gallaudet University at Florida Avenue, you will want to take your next left - onto the 500 block of Morse.  Parking is scarce (especially on Saturdays when one of the biggest flea markets in the city takes over a nearby parking lot), so be prepared to walk a bit.  Alternatively, you can take the Red Line to the New York Avenue Metro stop and then head east a few blocks, but the walk to Litteri is less than picturesque.  The red and green vertical stripes outside the green door announce your arrival.

Img_3945 Step inside the door for the first time, and you're likely to need a moment.  Immediately on your right, cases of wine are stacked six feet and higher, and signs trumpet prices as low as $3.99 for a bottle of Italian wine.  A mild feeling of claustrophobia can set in as you make your way toward a refrigerated case full of bottled soda, deli pickles and pre-made Italian sandwiches (made fresh each morning on hard and soft hoagie rolls).  Everywhere you look, your eyes are greeted by stacks of canned, bottled and packaged items from traditional Italian-American retailers like Cento, Sons of Italy, and De Cecco.  But in and among these items that can be found at most grocery stores are true gems that reflect Litteri's 80+ years of service (the original was opened downtown by DeFrancisci's great-uncle and grandfather in 1926) as a conduit for Italian staples: dried porcini mushrooms, arborio rice (for risotto) and desserts whose labels contain only a few words in English.

What appears to be a daunting and somewhat haphazard layout eventually resolves itself into a fairly well-organized floorplan: wine takes up a good portion of the front of the store, followed by spices and dry pasta along the right-hand wall.  The left wall is taken up with refrigerators and freezer cases containing fresh-made pasta from Frank Vellegia's Casa di Pasta in Baltimore, hand-tossed pizza dough, and packaged fresh cheeses (mozzarella, ricotta, mascarpone, etc.).  Down the middle of the store two large shelves offer a dizzying array of olive oils, vinegars made from almost any fruit you can think of, jarred pasta sauces (for those who don't have the time or the energy to make their own 'gravy' from scratch) and canned goods.

Img_3944 If the layout of the store didn't serve to draw customers to the rear, the deli counter that runs along the entire back wall would easily do the trick.  Even from the front of the store you can see the hanging salamis and prosciutti beckoning you.  The view continues to improve as you approach the counter, with hand-linked sausage and stuffed vinegar peppers on display in a glass case that is full of Italian-American delicacies like baccala (salted cod) and soppresata (a pork salumi that has large chunks of fat throughout).  The men who work behind the counter have done so for years, and this is reflected in the easy, ongoing conversations they share with regular customers.  They are quick to offer samples of anything from an obscure salume like mortadella to an everyday provolone, and their recommendations have always served me well.

The counter is the heart of A. Litteri - in addition to the cold cuts and cheeses that they slice to order, visitors can also purchase a wide variety of Italian accompaniments by weight - assorted cured olives, sweet and hot peppers, pine nuts, grated Parmesan cheese and sea salt-packed capers all sit ready and waiting behind the counter in large containers.Img_3949_2  And it is here at the counter that customers can have sandwiches made to order.

These are not your ordinary, run of the mill sandwiches.  They are possibly the best deli sandwiches I have found since coming to Washington more than a decade ago.  The meatball and sausage sandwiches remind me of the ones I enjoyed with my family on weekends while I was growing up in New Jersey, and the cold cut options go far beyond those of most sandwich shops.  Additionally, this is the only place I have ever found to offer fresh mozzarella as a choice of cheese for your sandwich without any sort of upcharge.  The freshness of the bread and the rich flavors of the various condiments make for a great taste at a reasonable price - a loaded sandwich on a soft roll can be had for less than $5.

If you have ever visited the Italian Store in Arlington and fallen in love with their Old World charm, I encourage you to visit A. Litteri for the genuine article.  To make the trip even more worth your while, take some time to explore the Florida Market (the nearby warehouses and wholesale food vendors in the area).  Though more than a year old, this article from the Washington Post offers some great tips on places worth checking out.  Just make sure to plan your visit for a time when Litteri is open - they close at 3 PM on Saturdays and are closed all day on Sundays.

A. Litteri, Inc.
517 & 519 Morse Street, NE
7th & C Streets, SE
(202) 544-0184
Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 AM - 4 PM
Thursday and Friday, 8 AM - 5 PM
Saturday, 8 AM - 3 PM
Closed Sunday and Monday

Categories: Capitol Hill, Cheese, Deli, Italian, Sandwiches, Wine
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Feb 27, 2007

Il Pizzico

I think it's only appropriate that I finally write about Il Pizzico. After all, I give most of the credit for my intense love of Italian food to Il Pizzico. Back when Amy and I lived in Gaithersburg, I swear we were at Il Pizzico three or four times a month, but of course, that was before I started this web site so I never got a chance to write about them.

Just about every time I tell someone about Il Pizzico, they give me a puzzled look. "So they serve Pizza?" they always ask. Although it might look like a pizza joint from the outside, and the parking lot might be a challenge to find a space, trust me, the inside is NOT like that of a pizza joint and is actually a very nice looking establishment. (And no, the name has nothing to do with pizza and they don't even have pizza on the menu.) It's easily recognized by the crowd of people in the door on a Friday or Saturday night. Il Pizzico is well known among the locals and continues to draw a crowd.

Strangely enough, Il Pizzico hasn't changed much in the past 6 years that I've lived in the D.C. area. When I returned to the restaurant for the first time in 3 years last week, I was greeted by the same hostess, the bartender was still the same, and there were still a good deal of the same servers working. One person on the staff who used to wait on us regularly, recognized us, shook my hand and said "hello". That's just the kind of place that Il Pizzico is and they love their regulars and as a regular, it's not uncommon to find a dessert or two missing off the check at the end of the night.

The atmosphere is casual -- some people wear jeans and others dress up a little more. Since they don't take reservations, if you arrive after 6:30 on a Friday or Saturday night it's likely that you'll wait although the wait in the summer is usually a little shorter than the winter months. I've heard the hostess tell people the wait is over an hour which can be a hassle, but the food is worth the wait. Just take a seat at the bar, order a glass of wine, and have a nice chat with the bartender.

To start with, I recommend trying the soup of the day which is always reliable. The pasta fagioli, a thick, starchy soup with white beans, tomato and tubular pasta and the hearty lentil soup are good examples of this. Also, the crostini can be tasty as well depending on what the topping of the day is. On my last visit, Amy had the crostini with white beans, spinach, and garlic and it was fantastic.

Of course, you can always order a half portion of pasta as an appetizer, which I do quite regularly. Start with some pappardelle with duck ragu, continue with the veal scaloppine or rack of lamb, and finish with some coffee and dessert, and you've got yourself one great meal. Or, those of you that don't have quite the appetite that I have, you might just want to order a pasta for an entrée, which is pretty common to see.

I like just about all of the pastas at Il Pizzico, except for the gnocchi which comes off too dense like the kind that you'd buy at the grocery store. Other than that, all of the pasta is excellent. My favorites range from the pappardelle with hearty duck ragu to the maltagliati with veal meat sauce. But neither of them come close to the mushroom ravioli with pistachio cream sauce. The cream sauce is thick and creamy like no other sauce you'll ever have, but the flavor is magnificent. You might think at first that the chef is putting too much sauce on the ravioli, but then you realize that you can use your bread to clean the dish off!

The meal can sometimes go downhill from there depending on what you order and I've had mixed experiences when I try to branch out from my favorites from the entrees. You generally can't go wrong with the grilled sirloin steak topped with fresh mushrooms and a red wine sauce. It's a pretty basic dish, but also a satisfying one. I also like the veal roll ups. The chef takes veal scaloppine, fills it with fontina cheese and spinach, and then rolls it up like a sausage. That's topped with a savory sage flavored veal jus. Entrée prices are all below $23 so the portions aren't enormous, but after a salad or soup and possibly a pasta course, who has room for a 20 ounce steak?

For some reason, the desserts don't seem as good as they used to be. Maybe it's just because my tastes have changed since when I used to dine at Il Pizzico. I recall there being an amazing pear tart on the dessert menu almost all the time, and that's gone now. The vanilla bean creme brulée, however, is Amy's favorite, and she's as close to a creme brulée connoisseur as you get.

It would be a shame to not tell you about the wine list, which happens to be one of the more interesting that I've seen, despite the Montgomery Country liquor board. The wines are reasonably priced and the staff always seems to know which will go well with your meal.

Il Pizzico
15209 Fredrick Rd
Rockville MD 20850
Map
(301) 309-0610

Details:
Lunch
Mon - Fri: 11:00 am to 2:30 pm
Dinner
Mon - Thur: 5 pm to 9:30pm
Fri - Sat: 5 pm to 10 pm

Dress Code: Business Casual
Parking: Parking at the strip mall. If there isn't a spot out front, then try around the back.
Closest Metro:  Rockville
Reservations: Not taken.
Baby-Child friendly rating: 2 Diapers. It's not uncommon to see people there with their children, but the restaurant doesn't have an overabundance of child seats.

Categories: Italian, Restaurant Reviews, Rockville
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Feb 08, 2007

Amici Miei

I've been a lucky bastard since I moved to my new place considering all of the awesome restaurants that are now a 5-minute drive away -- like Joe's Noodle House, Amici Miei, India Grill, Passage to India, Faryab, David Craig, Ray's the Classics, and uh...Hooters. The wings are really good, I swear! I've probably been to Amici Miei a lot more than the others. I'll usually go a little out of my way coming home from work to pick up some takeout.

It was about a year ago that I first went to Amici Miei. I'll admit that the only reason I ever went there was because they suddenly appeared on Washingtonian's 100 Best (Yes, I have read the latest 100 Best and like the rest of you I'm a little blown away by some of the restaurants that were included this year, but that's another topic and one of my favorite restaurants, Il Pizzico, was missing again). I don't remember much from one year ago, let alone one month ago, but one of the things I do remember was how good the service was.

The service never seems to suffer no matter how busy the restaurant is. One night when Amy and I stopped by sans reservation, the host was able to squeeze us in and despite the restaurant being almost completely full, our service was spotless and the server still managed to maintain an amicable attitude despite probably being overloaded with tables.

Amici Miei is a neighborhood restaurant. I say that because it's family friendly and inexpensive, and not necessarily because it's easy to get a table. During the week, you shouldn't have a problem getting a table, but in the weekend, you might wait a while and you're wise to make a reservation. But even then, sometimes you might find yourself out of luck depending on the size of your party. I tried calling last weekend with a party of six on a Saturday, and there was nothing available.

With Italian food, you all know that I'm all about the pasta. Amici Miei's standout pasta dish is their rich, homemade veal and chestnut agnolotti. At $14.95, it's the perfect winter dish, and comes served in a scant pool of veal and rosemary reduction sauce. Another favorite of mine is the gnocchi with pillow-y soft potato dumblings topped with a thick boar and tomato ragu. I also appreciate that most of the pastas on the menu are homemade. But that isn't always a good thing in the case of the lasagna, with homemade lasagna noodles that have a tendency to get lost with all the cheese because they're thin and soft -- it just comes off as overcooked to me.

I've found that the entrees can be a mixed experience. As a basic rule I have to add some salt, which is possibly because my palate is becoming more immune to the flavor of salt, and since there are salt and pepper shakers on the table I guess it's good for the more health conscious. There's almost always a seafood special available like a whole branzino or some other type of sea bass, which is good, but not much different than how I can make it myself at home. In general though, I've always found the seafood dishes like the trout and turbot to be fresh, flakey and flavorful. Sometimes the accompaniments just don't seem to have a lot of thought put into them, like in the case of the green lentils that come on the side of the turbot that just don't seem to belong on the plate.

Veal is done very well by the chef. Both veal dishes come with a creamy polenta on the side, which is bland on it's own, but when you mix it with the other ingredients on the plate, it can be heavenly. As any neighborhood restaurant should, the chef keeps things interesting with an extensive specials menu. There are usually 2 or 3 choices for specials for each course which keep the regulars coming back.

I regret to say that I typically steer away from desserts at Amici Miei. I've been able to try most of them, and they're usually either dry or lacking the sweetness that's needed to complete my meal. Good examples of this are the ricotta cheesecake which is more cakey than creamy and a pear tarte with a dry crust and bland filling. It's too bad because I so love desserts with pears! If you find yourself craving something sweet, you can't go wrong with the tiramisu which is a traditional version or a tiramisu and is bound to please just about anyone. (Or just take an alternative route and order the cheese plate.)

Our bills for the two of us are usually under $100 and that's usually with a mid-range priced bottle of wine, dessert, and coffee which makes definitely qualifies Amici Miei in the cheap eats category.

Amici Miei
Located in Potomac Woods Plaza
1093 Seven Locks Rd
Rockville, MD 20854
Map

(301) 545-0966
www.amicimieiristorante.com

Hours:
Lunch
Mon-Sat: 11:30 AM to 2:30PM

Dinner
Sun-Thu: 5 PM to 10 PM
Fri-Sat: 5 PM to 10:30 PM

Details:
Dress Code: Casual
Parking: Plenty of parking at the strip mall. 
Closest Metro:  You'll have to drive.
Reservations: Taken and recommended on weekends.
Baby-Child friendly rating: 3 Diapers. The restaurant is very child friendly and it's common to see people there with their children.

Categories: Italian, Potomac, Restaurant Reviews, Rockville
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Jan 03, 2007

Bebo Trattoria

Bebo Back in September, when I first found out that Roberto Donna was opening Bebo Trattoria, I was really excited. The idea of a reasonably-priced Italian restaurant in the area run by Roberto gave me goosebumps! I'd always enjoyed dining at Osteria del Galileo, the cheaper, value-centric face of Galileo, and Bebo Trattoria just sounded like the same thing on a much larger scale.

I didn't go to Bebo Trattoria for a while after it opened, but people let me know, practically the day after they opened, about the bad service they were experiencing there. My response was simply, "Well, what do you expect? Give them another month or so to settle into the new space and get used to the new menu."

Following my own advice, I waited until the end of November, the Friday evening after Thanksgiving, and the restaurant wasn't very busy at all. Food and service on that first trip actually were both very good, but it was hardly representative of the typical experience at Bebo -- the restaurant was mostly empty.

I'd never been to the humongous, modern space previously occupied by Oyamel. A large bar overlooks a kitchen open for everyone to see -- and you occasionally see Roberto Donna and Executive Chef Amy Brandwein, slaving away over the presentation of that veal scallopine or whole roasted Branzino. Next to the bar, there's a very large room that can be curtained off for large parties or events, and then you step down into the spacious dining room.

Bebo's prices, quality of ingredients, and preparation set it apart from other Italian restaurants in the DC area. Entree portions aren't huge, but the prices make up for it. A polpette (meatball) entree comes with four (or maybe it was five) veal, beef and pork meatballs in a bed of chunky tomato sauce with garlic bread toasts for $12, or veal scallopine, lightly breaded, pan fried and topped with mozzarella cheese and a salty slice of anchovy.

However, fried foods have left me unimpressed. The fried mozzarella comes out greasy and heavy rather than the light and fluffy cheese puff that I'm used to. The same goes for the fried rabbit entree.

But who doesn't love pasta?! Bebo serves up simple pasta dishes with the occasional surprise like a deconstructed lasagna with bechamel and meat ragu (a subtler, less knock-you-on-your-fat-ass version than the one you'll find at Dino) or a hearty paccheri (think of a smooth-surfaced rigatoni) pasta with pork rib ragu.

I always hesitate to order risotto. How a restaurant can put the care and love and constant stirring into a risotto dish with all the craziness that goes on in a kitchen is beyond me and I always find that risotto is either underdone or overdone. At Bebo though, I've had the most amazing risotto. Each delicate morsel of rice had the right consistency and texture. Of course, that was the first time I ordered it. The second time, it was underdone, but the chance of eating perfection will keep me re-ordering it regardless. It helps to know that if you order the risotto, it will be a 25 minute wait. The first time I ordered it as an appetizer and we waited, for what seemed forever, for our appetizers to come.  The second time I ordered it though, our server informed us that the risotto takes 25 minutes, which explained a lot.

And like others have said, the service can be as inconsistent as the risotto and seems to depend completely on the server. A night where we had flawless service, the table next to mine waited 30 minutes before their server came to greet them and had to go talk to the hostess before their waiter came over. When ordering the whole fish, the server brings it to the table and de-bones the fish. When I first ordered the fish, my server butchered the fish and left half of the meat still hanging off the bones. But, the other night, I saw another server fillet the fish perfectly, getting every little piece of that fish off the bones.

Desserts on the other hand, are anything BUT inconsistent as each and every dessert I've ordered is completely delicious. My favorites are a creamy and sweet panna cotta with a sinfully sweet  strawberry sauce and the tiramisu, which is anything but typical, with brandy and espresso drenched lady fingers in a pool of sweet, fluffy marscarpone....and the firm chocolate pudding with crumbled merange...and the list goes on.

Wines are available by the glass and bottle and there are a good deal of bottles that are reasonably priced unlike Galileo. Roberto Donna's commitment to good cuisine continues with the recent reopening of "The Grill" which has been a longstanding DC foodie staple since its opening. Roberto has also resumed his cooking classes (which I've written about here before) at Bebo. Pizza will soon be offered too as soon as the wood-burning oven is installed.

My suspicion is that as time goes on and the servers get more experienced, the service issues will disappear. But regardless, Bebo is a great restaurant overall that I'll continue to return to as often as I can.

Bebo Trattoria
2250-B Crystal Drive
Arlington, VA 22202
Map
(703) 412-5076
Web Site

Details:
Dress Code: Casual
Parking: There is a parking garage under the shopping center where Bebo Trattoria is located and parking is free after 4 PM. 
Closest Metro: National Airport Crystal City
Reservations: Taken and recommended.
Baby-Child friendly rating: 3 Diapers. The atmosphere isn't too quiet but not too loud either. The waitstaff seems very amicable to children and it seems pretty common for people to bring children to the restaurant. Highchairs and boosters are available.

Categories: Crystal City, Italian, Pizza, Restaurant Reviews
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