Some chefs reference family recipes from time to time. At Caruso’s Grocery, an Italian-American red sauce joint opening Wednesday, May 12 on Capitol Hill, partner Matt Adler says his menu is almost entirely drawn from Scoozi—a restaurant his father, Larry Adler, ran for a decade in their upstate New York town, and where the younger Adler worked for a year before heading off to the Culinary Institute of America.
“I really try and look back at my father’s food because that’s an honest interpretation [of Italian-American cooking], not a chef’s interpretation,” says Adler, who spent recent years helming cheffy Italian kitchens at Osteria Morini and Alta Strada. “What’s the best way to make these dishes without micro-greens or deconstructing anything? I just want every dish to the best possible version—good ingredients, well seasoned, but not messing with it too much.”
The 65-seat restaurant is the only stand-alone venture at the Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s dynamic food hall, the Roost, which also hosts chef Brittanny Anderson’s all-day cafe, Leni; Yoko & Kota, a pan-Asian noodle shop from Erik Bruner-Yang; Ako by Kenaki sushi; and a variety of NRG concepts including Hi/Fi taco and Shelter beer hall. Caruso’s isn’t a personal project for only Adler. The red booth restaurant takes its name (and throwback feel) from the original Caruso’s Grocery, an Italian market that NRG founder Michael Babin’s family ran in Louisiana when he was growing up. Babin and Adler spent months collecting family recipes and researching red sauce joints at traditional New York spots like Mario’s in the Bronx and Williamsburg’s Queen.
“We put a ton of work into making sure we have the right plates, that the space looks right, smells right, feels right. But it’s not overwrought. We don’t want it to feel like Buca di Beppo,” says Adler.
Unlike certain nouveau-red sauce restaurants in New York, Adler doesn’t plan to amp up dishes (or prices) with fancy flourishes like, say, Carbone’s $69 veal parmesan. The kitchen uses the same canned Alta Cucina tomatoes from the Scoozi days in Adler’s pomodoro sauce, the workhorse of any Italian-American restaurant.
Neighborhood Restaurant Group spirits director Nick Farrell has created a list of fun house cocktails and infusions—all $10—such as an antipasti martini with Italian tomato gin, olive brine, and a mozzarella garnish, or a Godfather Manhattan rinsed with amaretto.
Antipasti generally run $10 to $12—think four-cheese garlic bread, tender tomato-braised meatballs, or mozzarella in carozza, an Adler family specialty where mozzarella is layered with bread and a garlic-lemon-herb puree, battered, and fried. Pastas hover between $19 to $23 and feature many of the classics: penne all vodka with peas and prosciutto; linguine with clam sauce; and shrimp scampi. Adler uses a mix of quality dried noodles and homemade pastas in dishes like “Nona’s lasagna” layered with ricotta and homemade ragu, or a slightly lighter riff on creamy Alfredo with wild mushrooms and truffle butter. Guests can customize pastas by adding chicken ($5) or shrimp ($7).
After sampling widely around the red sauce world, Adler argues that “execution” is what makes an Italian-American restaurant stand out from the pack: “Making sure the veal is properly pounded, the chicken freshly breaded that day, the sauces are seasoned,” he says. To that end, you’ll find him in the kitchen every morning hand-pounding veal for over an hour to get the right texture and juiciness for Francaise (battered cutlets in lemon-butter sauce). Entrees include some splurge items in the $30-plus range like seafood fra diavolo or a 14-ounce ribeye with braised mushrooms and roasted garlic-mashed potatoes.
While Adler has one foot grounded in the finer-dining world, the chef spent most of the past pandemic year directing World Central Kitchen’s massive relief effort out of Nationals Park. The charity operation, founded by chef José Andrés, frequently made up to 20,000 free meals a day—an experience he says “is the best work I’ve ever done.” With Caruso’s, Adler wants to fill another kind of need.[My father] wasn’t necessarily an Italian chef. When it was time to open his own [restaurant], he found a space and designed it around what the neighborhood needed—a good place where people could come in and have a simple pasta and glass or wine, or come for a Saturday date night. You need to be a warm, inviting place.”
Caruso’s Grocery is currently in a soft-opening phase with a limited menu, hours, and reservations. The restaurant plans to fully open on Wednesday, May 12 and offer brunch in about two months.
Check out the opening menus below.
Caruso’s Grocery. 1401 Pennsylvania Ave, SE.