Al Dente (Formerly La Forchetta)
3201 New Mexico Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20016
Neighborhood: Upper Northwest
Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 AM to 4 PM. Open for dinner Sunday through Thursday 4 to 10; Friday and Saturday 4 to 11. Open for brunch Saturday and Sunday 11:30 AM to 4 PM.
Price Range: Moderate
Burrata with roasted tomato; meatballs “La Forchetta style”; zucchini flowers with ricotta and mint; gnocchi with sausage ragu; spaghetti with soft-shell crab; lasagnette; zuppa inglese; bombolini with chocolate sauce; tiramisu.
Starters $5.95 to $9.95, entrées $7.95 to $19.95.
When restaurateur Hakan Ilhan opened La Forchetta in April, most of the buzz centered around his hiring of chef Roberto Donna. Long a powerhouse on the Washington dining scene, Donna had decamped for Arizona earlier in the year following the shuttering of his latest Washington restaurant, Galileo III. Tax and payroll problems aside, Donna is known for both his elevated trattoria fare—he had several casual places in the ’90s—and the more ambitious, multi-course menus at his downtown DC flaship, Galileo, which closed in 2006. In his nearly three decades of rolling out ravioli and roasting lobster tails here, he stretched the city’s sense of what Italian fine dining could be.
This casual, mod, tangerine-accented trattoria turns out simpler fare: starters such as rich little meatballs; burrata cheese lavished with sweet olive oil and countered by roasted, vine-ripened tomato; and deep-fried, ricotta-stuffed zucchini blossoms accented with mint and a blast of lemon. From-scratch pasta dishes include tender gnocchi with a chunky sausage ragu and spaghetti studded with generous hunks of soft-shell crab, tomato, and garlic. Intermingling aromas of tomato, beef, and cream announce a hefty crock of lasagnette—you can soak up its silky sauce with two types of house-made bread.
A few months back, Ilhan predicted that the wood-fired pizza at La Forchetta would outperform those at 2 Amys, the Neapolitan-style juggernaut in nearby Cleveland Park. So far, that’s not the case. A bland, brittle crust bedevils the briny Romana pie topped with anchovies, capers, black olives, and chilies. It’s an equally unsuitable base for the Margherita, with buffalo mozzarella and a scattering of basil leaves.
Desserts are more successful, especially nugget-size bombolini (doughnuts) dipped in chocolate, and zuppa inglese, layers of rum-soaked sponge cake, chocolate, and cream accompanied by warm vanilla sauce.
Given the frenetic energy in the dining room, the best place to enjoy all this is on the patio, where candles twinkle and leafy trees rise above the umbrellas outside neighboring Chef Geoff’s. It’s a serene spot to take in chef Donna’s current dishes—food designed not to stretch minds but to soothe them.
This article appears in the August 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.