“Authentic Italian” is the description of choice for most restaurants with a list of contorni on the menu, but the team behind Ozzie’s Corner Italian isn’t trying to replicate the lasagna that a nonna from Bologna would make; the latest addition to the Great American Restaurants group plans to serve the lasagna that Grandma from South Philly would make. In this case, it’s “crazy lasagna” layered with ricotta, wild-boar Bolognese, provolone, and, in the occasional Goodfellas parlance of the menu, “a couple meatballs.”
“We’re an American restaurant that serves Italian food versus one that’s authentic to Italy itself,” says Randy Norton, cochairman of the restaurant group, which also owns 11 other Virginia dining spots including Carlyle, Artie’s, and Jackson’s Mighty Fine Food.
It’s a logical move for a company that has built a strong reputation on regional American cuisine, from the Old West fare of Sweetwater Tavern to the Floridian stylings of Coastal Flats. Still, there are plenty of distinctly Italian touches. Pastas are made from scratch, as is the focaccia. Instead of the restaurant group’s signature Hong Kong-style sea bass, there’s grilled branzino, a type of bass found in the Mediterranean. Wild boar, popular in Tuscany, shows up in both the Bolognese sauce and that lasagna. Lemon-and-garlic-marinated chicken is cooked under a brick atop a wood grill.
Before they created the menu, the Ozzie’s team spent months traveling to Italian-American neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, and New York. They sampled fare from the red-sauce legend Rao’s in Harlem, the seasonally minded Mercato in Philadelphia, and Il Pizzico, the Rockville dining room known for its house-made pasta. “Our idea evolved as we went around and ate,” Norton says.
Although the food is a departure for the restaurant group, Ozzie’s still bears similarities to its siblings. It’s a lively, comfortable place that has both a $23 rib eye and a $5 kid-size chicken parm, and it aims to attract families as much as it does suburban couples on a date. (A separate barroom is a high-chair-free zone.) Jack Gable, who painted the walls at other Great American eateries, has translated the festive wedding scene from The Godfather into a mural. Bartenders wear royal-blue Italian soccer jerseys.
The restaurant is named for Chris “Ozzie” Osborne, a lead chef who has been with the group since 1981. His doughnut-like Ozzie rolls have become a cult-favorite bread at all of the group’s restaurants. “I’ve been happily flying under the radar for 30 years,” he says. “But I’m genuinely honored.”
Ozzie’s Corner Italian, 11880 Grand Commons Ave., Fairfax; 571-321-8000; greatamericanrestaurants.com/ozzies. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Follow the Best Bites Bloggers on Twitter at twitter.com/bestbitesblog