First impressions of three new Italian restaurants.
When an out-of-town restaurateur pays homage to DC with a token half-smoke or crabcake, it’s usually a red flag—like wearing a band’s T-shirt to their own concert (“We belong!”). Cue the unfortunate Mambo pizza at New York restaurateur Michael White’s newest local venture. (He’s also behind Osteria Morini in Navy Yard.)
The pie, bogged down with bready chicken and sweet sauce, is an anomaly: Pizza is actually one of the best things here—if you stick to the classics. The crusts are flavorful enough to boost a simple cheese pizza, while their medium thickness—an ode to White’s native Wisconsin—can support toppings like the thick-cut pepperoni and fennel sausage.
The menu swings between Mediterranean (a nice branzino) and Italian American. Our favorite dishes fall into the latter category: wings with blue-cheese crema, veggie fritto misto, textbook tiramisu. Then there’s the White Label burger, a dish that isn’t particularly Italian but features an aged-beef blend from longtime Manhattan butcher Pat LaFrieda—a New York export to stand by. 901 Fourth St., NW. Moderate.
Amy Brandwein is best known for the meticulously crafted pastas and robust roasts at her Italian dining room, Centrolina. Now, across the alley, she’s opened a copper-accented cafe that’s just as deserving of praise. To prepare for her new breakfast-till-dinner spot, which took over the Rare Sweets bakery space in CityCenterDC, Brandwein spent time learning how to bake bread in San Francisco. She’s an A student when it comes to esoteric Italian creations such as the Carte Musica, a crackly round that shatters when you break it apart and is topped with a bright salad of tomato and avocado. Her excellent Panuozzo, a sandwich hailing from Campania, is stuffed with rich porchetta, bitter greens, and sweetly grilled onions. Mixed into the menu are treats such as wood-roasted grapefruits, skillets of lasagna, and ham-and-fontina-filled crepes.
Brandwein’s sweets are just as much of a reason to visit. There’s no better cannoli or bomboloni—her doughnuts are sugared and filled with vanilla custard—in town. Same goes for the not-too-bitter Aperol spritz. 963 Palmer Alley, NW. Inexpensive.
DC hotels, once the domain of overpriced steakhouses, are stepping up their culinary game—from high-end (the Voltaggio brothers at Conrad) to budget (the Hilton brothers at the Pod). Our latest great meal didn’t come from a flashy newcomer but from the historic Hamilton Hotel, which underwent a multimillion-dollar makeover. Also new: this modern osteria helmed by former Fiola Mare chef de cuisine Colin Clark.
Seafood dishes shine, whether tuna-and-melon carpaccio, calamari over coriander yogurt, or a monkfish “osso buco” braised in tomato sauce. House-made pastas—such as a pappardelle Bolognese with maitake mushrooms—are beautiful. And the Neapolitan pies are worth a trip: The puffy crusts are topped with truly Italian combinations including buffalo mozzarella, prosciutto, arugula, and zesty Sicilian olive oil.
Sadly, the loud, bright space is a reminder that you are indeed in a hotel. Ditto service that can feel rushed or forgetful. But if you can’t take the hotel out of the restaurant, at least make the cooking this good. 1001 14th St., NW. Expensive.
This article appears in the October 2019 issue of Washingtonian.