20462 Exchange St., Ashburn
The menu may read like any other Italian restaurant’s, but nearly every dish at this Bryan Voltaggio spot comes with a surprise. Expecting bread and olive oil to start your meal? Here, complimentary slices of warm focaccia come with ricotta and whipped mortadella. Think you know what fettuccine carbonara looks like? Here, noodles studded with lardons and roasted pearl onions are topped with an egg-yolk espuma—mix it all together for a creamy sauce.
465 K St., NW; 2811 District Ave. #150, Fairfax
Boston chef Michael Schlow imported his “dream restaurant” from Wellsley, Massachusetts to DC and northern Virginia. Crunchy meatballs or creamy straciatella cheese are a good way to start at this casual Italian eatery. When it comes to the main course, we tend to go for housemade pastas over pizzas. Menus vary by location, but a solid tagliatelle with Bolognese sauce is a staple on both.
1099 New York Ave., NW
Osteria dining is typically a simple, laid-back affair, but restaurateur Fabio Trabocchi doesn’t do anything without a little finesse, prettying up scallop crudo with flower petals or up-charging for tableside-shaved Alba white truffles. Still, the cooking is comforting at its core, particularly when it comes to pastas. Try the shells with tomato and bacon “fumé or lobster gnocchi in a rich tomato sauce spills out of the crustacean’s shell. Whatever you do, save room for the ricotta bomboloni with warm chocolate sauce.
974 Palmer Alley, NW
Chef Amy Brandwein likes to keep things simple at her stylish osteria, neighboring Hermès and Louis Vuitton at swanky CityCenterDC. She understands better than most that the subtle smoke and char of a wood-fired oven or a really good olive oil is often the only accessory that high-quality seasonal ingredients need. She also knows pasta, whether it’s house-made ribbons of pappardelle or stuffed cappellacci. The adjoining market sells Brandwein’s pastas and sauces along with sustainable seafood and Italian pantry items.
601 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
There are newer, flashier restaurants in Fabio and Maria Trabocchi’s constellation, but the duo’s Penn Quarter flagship still shines. Here, no detail is too small. Dinner menus range from three to four courses (plus dessert), but you can go à la carte at lunch. Whatever you decide, Trabocchi’s lobster ravioli with ginger, chive, and roe is tough to pass up.
3050 K St., NW
This Fabio and Maria Trabocchi production is still the hangout of choice when the mega-famous come through town. (Yep, that was Barack and Michelle sharing a table with Meryl in December.) Although the menu is heavier on proven hits than innovations these days, few restaurants in Washington serve seafood of this caliber. Although it’s best sampled on the lavish shellfish platter, we also recommend the lobster ravioli, spaghetti with clams, and seafood bucatini. Throw in grade-A service and a sparkling river view and you’ve got the makings of a starry night, no matter who else is in the room.
1610 14th St., NW
Ari Gejdenson’s Neapolitan trattoria feels like a nightly party. Dates line the marble bar, sipping Italian wines or aperitifs. Groups crowd around wooden tables for blistery pies topped with cheffy combinations such as locally made sausage with charred onions. (Get them for a discount during happy hour.) The kitchen’s talents extend to pastas, too. A rich tagliatelle with beef ragu always does the trick.
Hank’s Pasta Bar
600 Montgomery St., Alexandria
Few dining rooms in the area are as suited to family get-togethers as this spacious spot, decorated with Shaker chairs and Chesterfield couches. House-made pastas are for sharing and can lean rich—delicious as they are, there’s only so much carbonara and sausage-and-cream mafalde one can put away. Plus, there’s luscious burrata and house-made ricotta with pepper and honey to start. Even a brightly flavored radish salad comes on a bed of cheese.
15209 Frederick Road, Rockville
You don’t see too many lines at Rockville restaurants—unless you’re at Enzo Livia’s no-reservations Northern Italian pasta house. Worth the wait: bucatini with spicy tomato sauce and pancetta; mushroom ravioli in velvety pistachio-cream sauce; and gnocchi gilded with gorgonzola and truffle oil.
1340 4th St., NE
Walk through the tall metal gate at Nick Stefanelli’s Union Market restaurant and the industrial-wholesale strip gives way to a California-esque courtyard and a concrete-clad open kitchen. The menu pulls you to Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, where the chef has roots. Unlike other tasting-menu destinations, this one offers the flexibility to pick and choose dishes from different categories. Want to make a meal of just pastas? Linguine with XO sauce make it a temptation. Then again, you wouldn’t want to miss the beef tripe braised in a Sicilian fish stew with lobster—a highbrow/lowbrow duo of remarkably similar textures. Up for a nightcap? Masseria boasts the city’s largest collections of vintage amaros.
8235 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring
Flickering candles, dark wood, and vintage photos give these dining rooms a Mulberry Street vibe. The lineup of red-sauce plates fits the theme. This is the place to rediscover retro classics—a robust lasagna, linguine with sausage and melty peppers, or eggplant and veal Parmesans that are lightly sauced and dotted with cheese. Fried calamari have just the right crunch, and arancini are nearly the size of a bocce ball. To keep the tab especially low, check out weekday specials such as half-price wine on Monday and $6 martinis on Tuesday.
Osteria Al Volo
1790 Columbia Road, NW
For 25 years, Pasta Mia was a Washington staple for big, affordable bowls of pasta, drawing long waits in its hey-day. But here’s a little secret: the pasta shop that replaced it is actually much better. Osteria Al Volo makes all its rigatoni, gnocchi, and pappardelle—all perfectly cooked and sauced. The owners recently opened a trattoria in Cleveland Park, and if you’re wishing you could make pasta like this at home, Al Volo also has a more casual counter in Union Market where you can pick up packaged pastas and sauces.
301 Water St., SE
Don’t visit restaurateur Michael White’s waterfront trattoria if you’re counting carbs. Dishes from the Emilia-Romagna region—nicknamed the breadbasket of Italy—aren’t for slight appetites. Ubiquitous meat and cheese boards have nothing on these antipasti, with nibbles such as pistachio-mortadella spread, Parmesan “gelato,” and fresh-baked flatbreads. A wood grill tempts with steaks and seafood, but don’t skip pastas. Recent favorites include a tangle of squid-ink noodles, scallops, and chilies or wide ribbons sauced with duck-and-mushroom ragu.
The Red Hen
1822 First St., NW
You really can’t go wrong if you go heavy on the carbs at this rustic Italianish-American restaurant in Bloomingdale. Start with crostini toasted over the wood-fired grill, then slathered with whipped ricotta and truffle honey. Handmade garganelli and cavatelli pasta are dressed for the season, whether with porcini crema in winter or sweet-corn fonduta come summer. One staple: rigatoni with fennel-sausage ragu. Our server sold the Red Hen classic by saying it’s the perfect dish if you’re having a bad day. It has never failed to make us smile.
601 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Glitzy owners—who include reality-TV personalities Giuliana and Bill Rancic—and a black-windowed Vegas vibe have a way of making discerning eaters nervous. And while there are areas to avoid on RPM’s Italian menu (bill-padding antipasti such as lobster caprese salad and octopus with chickpeas, for instance), the place does right by the Italian-American repertoire. Our tactic: Order pastas with abandon—a simple, flavor-bursting linguine pomodoro, a strapping carbonara—and share one of the oversize entrées, like the gigantic chicken Parm.
4445 Connecticut Ave., NW
Restaurateurs Fabio and Maria Trabocchi bill their Van Ness pasta house as a “neighborhood” joint, and indeed the red-and-white-striped dining room is a welcome addition to an area starved for decent restaurants. But the place also has enough Trabocchian indulgences (truffles, rare reserve wines) to be a draw across the city. The menu asks, “Which pasta are you?” It’s hard to imagine anyone who’s not the spaghetti carbonara with its thick, chewy noodles. But if you’re not sure, a tasting with three family-style plates for $68 is a great way to sample things.
Tail Up Goat
1827 Adams Mill Road, NW
When food critics describe a dream restaurant, it’s often a place like this Mediterranean-leaning spot—small and lovely, with a great bar; highly ambitious but not hugely expensive; service that’s friendly and relaxed but also seamless and keenly knowledgeable. Though it’s tough to pass up the famed lamb ribs, chef Jon Sybert keeps the new hits coming, including a handful of ever-changing pasta dishes. Who knew an ’80s-throwback pasta primavera could taste so fresh thanks to briny pops of trout roe?