Italian-American--Spicy, Eccentric, and Good
A.V. Ristorante Italiano (607 New York Ave., NW; 202-737-0550. Dinner for two, $88). This is the house that Augusto Vasaio built. A native of Pescara, a coastal village in the Italian region of Abruzzo, he opened A.V. Ristorante Italiano in 1949 and introduced Washingtonians to the pleasures of pizza bianca--a thin disk of pizza dough baked with a topping of finely minced garlic, dried oregano, and dried hot-pepper flakes. It was a savory flatbread meant to be eaten with appetizers and main courses. As a first course, a shared pizza bianca could be further topped with fontina cheese and anchovies.
At A.V.'s in 1965, patrons were presented with a long menu. Part of the restaurant's eccentric charm was that on any given night a third of the items were unavailable.
Back then there were two kinds of A.V. regulars. First were the parties that sat 6 to 12 at a table and feasted on antipasto salad and stuffed artichokes and pizza bianca, then tackled platters of tomato-sauced spaghetti or linguine garnished with assorted meats or a combination of seafoods.
Then there were those who knew that the way to enjoy the kitchen at its best was to ask Augusto Vasaio what he would suggest. If there were newcomers at the table, Don Augusto would be gentle, suggesting stewed squid followed by a bone-in rib-roast of veal that his brother Franco had just cooked. For longtime regulars, he might present a meal of four courses of squid prepared in different ways or make baked lamb's heads the centerpiece of a feast for 12.
Vasaio was a very good cook, though his amiable brother Franco did the heavy lifting. In 1976 The Washingtonian organized a pasta competition featuring the chefs of the leading Italian restaurants and, for the sake of nostalgia, Augusto Vasaio. The contest was held at Tiberio Ristorante on K Street, then one of the city's most expensive restaurants.
In their starched white jackets, Washington's top Italian chefs awaited the arrival of the last contestant, Vasaio. In a gray suit and a plaid flannel shirt open at the collar, A.V. arrived carrying a few utensils and the ingredients for his dish, linguine with a mixed-seafood sauce from Pescara. While his linguine was cooking, he sautéed his seafood in olive oil with garlic, dried flakes of hot-pepper, and tomato. When instinct told him that the pasta and sauce were simultaneously ready, he plated the dish in one of A.V.'s family-size platters and had it delivered to the judges. Then he packed his utensils and headed back to host dinner at A.V. When the judges' votes were tallied, Vasaio was the winner.
Vasaio's son, Augusto, and stepson, Johnny DiBari, have been running A.V. for more than 20 years since its founder's demise. Augusto, who headed the kitchen during some of the years his father was imposing his will on the dining room, is now the person one consults for advice about the best dishes of the day--and the one who will honor a request that the pasta be cooked al dente rather than precooked and reheated as it would be otherwise.
Because of its proximity to Capitol Hill, A.V. has long counted senators and congressmen among its regulars. At a lunch in August, Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia emerged with members of his staff from the back of the restaurant, where the group had enjoyed an assortment of pizzas. Scalia also drops by to lunch with fellow justice Clarence Thomas.
A meal at A.V. inspired by memories of Augusto Vasaio might begin with cannellini beans stewed with onion and escarole sautéed with garlic, both enjoyed with bites of pizza bianca. It would be nice to include a plate of roasted peppers with anchovies, but at the height of the local pepper season, A.V.'s peppers had the slightly bitter flavor of roasted peppers out of a can.
Instead of having the meat and pasta together in the Italian-American style, Augusto would suggest that you have a half order of pasta after the antipasto, followed by meat or seafood as a main course.
The best pasta courses sampled recently at A.V. were linguine with shrimp Fra Diavolo, impressive for its large shrimp and fearlessly spicy tomato sauce, and linguine with wonderfully tender baby calamari in a spicy sauce. Choice main courses included a whole broiled rockfish recommended by Augusto Vasaio. A cautionary note: If you order a whole fish at A.V., be prepared to bone the fish yourself.
A.V.'s signature veal roast is no longer the bone-in cut of a veal rib roast served in 1965 but a flavorsome boned shoulder whose generous slices are moistened with a pan sauce flavored with Marsala. As the weather turns cooler, look for one of the treasures on A.V.'s list of daily specials, the rabbit cacciatore. Stewed in white wine and garnished with garlic cloves and served in a portion large enough to satisfy two, it is a wonderfully rustic dish that Johnny DiBari says Justice Scalia orders when he can resist the temptation of A.V.'s pizza.