Rumors that Mario Batali’s mega-market, Eataly, is headed here have been quashed, but nonetheless it’s a pretty great time to be an Italophile, or even a carb addict, in Washington. Neapolitan-style pizza shops are popping up like Bikeshare stations. Local maestro Fabio Trabocchi is expanding—his Fiola Mare is slated to open in Georgetown. And house-made limoncello and tagliatelle Bolognese are touted on even the most American of menus.
The latest reason to get excited? The arrival of Michael White. The New York chef behind the starry Midtown seafood emporium Marea has cloned his more rustic SoHo restaurant, Osteria Morini, and brought it not to Penn Quarter or 14th Street but to a more pioneering location: DC’s suddenly blossoming Navy Yard, which is also home to Bluejacket Brewery and will soon get a TaKorean, a Sweetgreen, and another White project, a spinoff of his Nicoletta pizzeria.
Despite attempts to warm up the glass box of a dining room—grandmotherly wooden dining chairs, flower-rimmed plates, lots of saffron yellow—the place still has a corporate chill to it. (That it looks onto a leafless gray riverscape this time of year doesn’t help.) But when it comes to the kitchen, White and executive chef Matt Adler offer plenty of robust yet refined comfort. Their focus is on Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, the land of eggy noodles and rich ragus.
Accordingly, pastas are among the surest bets, whether a hearty crock of béchamel-draped lasagna made crunchy with bread crumbs or twirls of gramigna laden with tomato, cream, and crumbles of pork sausage. Oddly, the biggest miss was the most straightforward—a classic tagliatelle with a listless, watery ragu. And if you’re in the mood for seafood, you’d do much better with the bucatini, tossed with crab and briny sea urchin, or a spicy-salty tangle of clams, chilies, and thin spaghetti than with an appetizer of scallops atop bland lentils or an overcooked cut of swordfish with broccoli rabe that came across as a depressing concession to a dieter.
Meat and game are a different story. To start meals off, there’s an array of charcuterie, including a lovely duck-liver mousse glistening with wine gelée as well as a wonderful guanciale-and-poached-egg salad sweetened with caramelized onions and just enough vinegar. A wood-burning grill gives a tender and hefty pork chop the right amount of smokiness and was responsible for one night’s star entrée—a bountiful platter bearing lamb chops, skirt steak, pork-and-fennel sausage, and decadent slices of pancetta.
If you go the traditional Italian route of appetizer, pasta, and meat or fish, you’ll likely be too stuffed even to think about dessert. Think again. Pastry chef Alex Levin is turning out all-around excellent sweets, in the form of a creamy, meringue-topped lemon tart, a pistachio cake with tangy crème fraîche sorbet, and an arrangement of milk-chocolate custard and bruléed bananas. They’re as simple as they are confident, and a fitting sendoff to one of the better Italian meals you’ll find right now—in a very crowded field.
This article appears in the February 2014 issue of Washingtonian.