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?
As 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.
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.
4838 Bethesda Ave.
Bethesda, MD 20814
* - 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.
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.