Disclaimer: I have to admit, I want Dino to be good and therefore I might be slightly biased. This place is in my hood, and my hood needs a place like this with an adventurous menu and a decent wine list.
Before ever dining at Dino, I fell in love with the menu -- full of mouth-watering descriptions of small plates and the sense that one can spend the entire night eating with a few glasses of valpolicella. The first time I read the menu, it was 11 PM and despite having just eaten a huge meal, I found myself longing for the taste of some rich lasagnette or salty proscuitto. Like I said when I posted about the upcoming opening of Dino, the menu reminds me of the 2Amys wine bar, only with a much broader selection.
When I found out they were opening last Wednesday, I knew I had to be there opening night. It was lunchtime on Wednesday when I called Dino to try to make a reservation, only to find out that they only take reservations for parties of 6 or more. "Do you expect to be crowded tonight?" I asked.
"Well, one can only hope," said the voice on the other end of the line.
Lucky for me, there was only a short wait when we arrived around 7:30 PM -- just a mere 5 minutes. When we visited Dino again the following night (Thursday), there was no wait at all, but that time we didn't arrive until 9. Both nights the restaurant seemed hopping, but there wasn't that air of frenzy that you see at some newly-opened restaurants. The kitchen is open to the public and looks very calm and composed as well.
I tend to wait at least a month to try new places, mostly because the service tends to be so rough, that it makes it hard to enjoy your meal. This was not so at Dino, where I found the timing of the food to be well-paced and the service friendly and knowledgable. There are the inevitable kinks to work out, but nothing that made my meals unenjoyable.
I have to admit though -- my service might have been better than most. As soon as I sat down the first night, our server brought over two cocktails for our table (Amy reluctantly sent her's back) and said that they were compliments of "Finch." (If you don't get the reference, I'll give you a clue -- look for a certain post that Amy did back in the early days of DCFoodies). I wont go into the details here, but we'd been outed so I don't want to give anyone the sense that I had any anonymity.
The menu has many different sections, and just when you think you've read them all, you turn over that last page and you find a couple more. The crostini section (my favorite) contains a list of 7 types of crostini. Each crostini is $1.75, or you can get a plate of 5 for $8. If the topping for the artichoke crostini came in a jar, I'd buy a year's supply. The topping contained fresh-roasted artichokes, tomatoes, roasted red peppers and fresh basil, and the chunks of topping were soft, but not overcooked. It was by far the best crostini. On its own, the chicken pate had a slightly bittersweet flavor to it, but with the dollop of (what I thought was) kiwi jam added to the top of the pate, it finished with a very slightly tart flavor to it. The blue cheese and anchovy on the Crostini alla Dino was a salty combination. I recommend eating it with a good red wine. Perhaps the Tomasso Bussola Valpolicello , which I found complimented it well. The last crostini on the menu, which Dino calls Fettunta, is actually not crostini, but bruschetta (toasted bread rubbed with garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper). Oddly enough, what most people are used to ordering as bruschetta (usually with tomatoes and mozzarella cheese) is really crostini. During our first meal, we only ordered two crostini, which was just enough to make us really hungry.
OK. Enough about the crostini already. On to the Cicchetti.
Cicchetti, as defined by the Dino menu, are small snacks. There are five of them currently on the menu, each costing $4.75. My favorite of these are the Polipo alla Griglia (baby octopus, braised in red wine and grilled, and served with lemony chickpeas and olive oil). I ordered this dish with much reservation, because octopus tends to have a rubbery texture to it, but the technique that Chef Johnny Neilsen uses to cook the octopus leaves them very tender. The combination of flavors, between the chickpeas, lemon, fresh tomatoes, olive oil and braised octopus, makes for a lovely combination. Another Cicchetti which we had a chance to try was the Saltimbocca which has nothing to do with veal saltimbocca, except for maybe that it contains ground veal. Quoting the menu:
Saltimbocca means "hops in the mouth." In Venice, what hops in the mouth are lightly braised meatballs in tomato sauce.
These loosely-packed meatballs tasted very homemade, like I wish Mom used to make, but I've had better meatballs. The meat flavor was very mild -- I thought I tasted more pork and veal in them than beef. I could tell the sauce that they were served in was very recently made and didn't come out of a container in the walk-in that morning.
We've only had a chance to try one dish, the Scamorza (smoked mozzarella roasted and topped with tomatoes, roasted garlic and basil), from the Antipasti section of the menu, and it was wonderful. The smoked mozzarella didn't have that overly smoky flavor to it, but what made up for it was the roasted garlic that you could spread on the bruschetta that came with it.
I had a couple conversations with Dean Gold about the menu, and one thing he seems especially proud of is the proscuitto, which like the other meats, he orders directly from Italy. I had the priveledge of trying this 500-day-aged proscuitto, and I will admit, it was one of the better proscuittos I've ever tried. Dino's prosciutto isn't overly salty or fatty and it has a delightfully tender texture. I also had the chance to try some of the other meats, in the Affettati Misti, a combination of meats, cheese and a piece of the frittata (which is also found in the Cichetti section of the menu). Our plate came with mortadella, salami, and provolone, and more bruschetta on the side. The salami and mortadella were both very good -- both being some of the best I've ever tasted as well. Short of taking a trip to Italy myself, I wonder if I'll find better. All of the meat plates are available in two sizes, a piccolo for $12 or a grande for $18.
We have yet to be able to accurately try the cheese plates, or Formaggi, in all of their glory. Dean Gold is BIG on non-pasteurized (or raw milk) cheeses, which are a big no-no for pregnant women. I'll update this post later after Amy gives birth in late September. From what I've seen though, they look excellent and are served with chestnut honey, blackberry jam, and another condiment that I couldn't identify. I overheard Dean talking to the table next to ours about how the Tallegio they offer is the only raw-milk Tallegio available in the U.S, and they are the only place you can get it. Perhaps this is due to Dean's history as a buyer for the Whole Foods corporation.
If there's a dish on the menu that I don't like, it has to be the Sapori D'Estate, a summer bean and veggie soup with meat broth, speck, and a pesto crostini in the "Primi" section of the menu. The menu states that the soup has a touch of pesto in it -- my definition of "a touch" is a lot smaller than a heaping tablespoon. The pesto contained way too much garlic and overpowered the rest of the soup. About halfway through eating the soup, Amy stopped and stated, "If I keep eating this, I'm going to smell like garlic for the rest of the week."
Dishes from the Primi (main course) section of the menu definitely worth trying are the Lasagnette and the Pinci al Cinghiale (they're actually the only two I've tried so far). The lasagnette contains an veal and pork ragu, fonduta, and smoked veal bacon. To call the ragu "rich" is an understatement, but it's still wonderful. I'm going to have a very hard time not ordering this dish every time I eat at Dino. Keep in mind that the lasagna at Dino is not your typical lasagna that's cooked in a baking dish and served in a block. The only thing that technically made it lasagna is that it was made with lasagna noodles. Other than that, it looked just like any other pasta dish you'd eat.
Pinci al Cinghaile is a pasta dish with noodles similar to lasagna noodles, only not so wide. The Cinghaile is wild boar with onions and herbs. Unlike other wild boar that I've had recently, this is juicier and more flavorful. People use boar in dishes because it's leaner and a little gamier tasting than typical pork, but it can also have a tendency to be a bit dry. This was not the case with the boar at Dino. The mixture also contained fresh tomatoes, chives (or possibly spring onions) and shaved pecorino.
This is turning into a long post so I will try to wrap things up.
It's hard for me to give a fair review of the desserts, because by the time I got to them each night I was there, I was so full. The limoncello tiramisu, which I had the first night, is very, very sweet. I'd definitely recommend trying some coffee (without sugar) with it to tone down the sweetness. I made the mistake of having a glass of limoncello on top of the tiramisu, and I regretted it.
The second night, we had a chance to try a lot of different desserts because the maitre'd brought out dessert samplers to all the tables. One of which was the nutella panini, which upon taking a single bite, Amy grabbed the plate away so I couldn't get any. I'd definitely recommend getting this, because the little that I could pry away from Amy tasted delicious. A pinenut tart with thyme was also in the sampler. If you're looking for a dessert that's not too sweet, this should be your choice.
The wine list is another pride and joy of the owners. Right now, there are about 90 wines on the menu and Dean plans to grow it to about twice its size. A majority of the wines are from Italy and California -- most being priced between $20 and $40. Wine pricing follows a standard of suggested retail plus $10. Corkage is allowed for $10 a bottle as well.
Dino plans to change the menu seasonally. In the fall, most of the tomato dishes will be replaced with eggplant and peppers, and then root vegetables will be featured in the winter. The list of cheeses will also grow from the current list of 10 to 20. Perhaps they will have more pasteurized cheeses soon?
3435 Connecticut Avenue
Washington, DC 20008
Hours: Dino opens at 5pm nightly. Last seating is
at 10:15pm Monday through Thursday, 10:30pm Friday and Saturday, 9:30pm
Dress Code: Casual - I wore shorts one night.
Smoking: Not allowed
Closest metro: Cleveland Park
Parking: None. You might be able to find parking in the area on the side streets. No Valet. I recommend taking a cab or the metro.
Reservations: Taken for parties of all sizes.
Amy's Bathroom rating: Very Clean and newly remodelled.