With Aventino, Bethesda Finally Gets the Destination Restaurant It Deserves

Revel in Roman pastas at the Red Hen crew’s stylish dining room

Photograph by Scott Suchman .

location_on 4747 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda

language Website

Downtown Bethesda is not hurting for Italian restaurants. No fewer than 13 pasta houses, trattorias, delis, and pizza shops—some several decades old—are within a three-quarter-mile radius of the genre’s latest arrival, Aventino. But there’s nothing remotely like this Rome-inspired newcomer from the folks behind Bloomingdale’s beloved Red Hen and the Navy Yard and Shaw pizzerias All-Purpose.

The dining room, all emerald green and brass, reads as clubby and chic—and, even with sponge-painted terra-cotta walls, entirely current. At the giant bar in the center of the restaurant, the crowd (there’s always a crowd) sips dirty martinis tinted with squid ink, sunset-hued Sicilian spritzes, and pitch-perfect Negronis. Aventino feels like what every owner dreams of: the place to be.

Photograph by Scott Suchman .

But I also applaud the ambitious Aventino for what it’s not: a replica of a hyper-successful dining room that already exists elsewhere, which has been the typical move for a DC restaurateur who lands in this neighborhood. (See: the Salt Line, PassionFish, Kapnos, Jaleo.) There is, however, a tiny adjacent carryout called AP Pizza Shop devoted to the same creative, sturdy-­crusted pizzas you’ll find at All-Purpose. Nice touch: They’re served by the slice at lunch (and the chocolate-chip cookies are top-tier).

Chef Mike Friedman’s menu—which has a leisurely number of snacks, plus housemade pastas and a few shareable entrées—doesn’t crib any dishes from the Red Hen. Still, fans of that restaurant will recognize a few subtle nods. Love the Red Hen’s ricotta toast? Don’t miss the cloud of whipped ricotta here, drizzled with honey, sprinkled with honeycomb and rosemary sea salt, and paired with chickpea-flour bread. Craving the fennel-­sausage rigatoni, which Jill and Joe Biden famously each ordered on a date night? The lumache—a snail-shaped pasta slicked with zesty amatriciana sauce and studded with crispy bits of guanciale—hits the same pleasure centers.

Friedman, who grew up in New Jersey, has long been obsessed with both Italian and Jewish cultures and cuisines, which, he notes, often sit side by side. “In New York, the Lower East Side is sandwiched against Little Italy. What are the two things you need to eat when you visit? A slice of pizza and a bagel,” Friedman says. “I’m trying to find Where do they meet? Where do they kiss?” A plate of artichokes is one answer. (Artichokes were a staple of Rome’s Jewish ghetto.) Braised in white wine, lemon juice, and anchovy until tender, they’re punched up with breadcrumbs and fresh mint.

Photograph by Scott Suchman .

The kitchen makes most of its pastas in-house. My favorite is the cappelletti, little hats stuffed with ricotta and served atop sunchoke purée, with a dash of balsamic to cut through the richness. The kitchen also makes a beautiful, silky carbonara with rigatoni. But I’ve had better cacio e pepe, and a bowl of spaghetti with clams was oddly blah, despite a ton of garlic.

I have a friend who always asks the same thing at the end of dinner: “What was your dish of the day?” Here, I’d hand my blue ribbon to a pile of lamb ribs rubbed in spices that mimic what you’ll find in porchetta (coriander, fennel seed, chili flakes), then smoked, roasted, and crisped up in their rendered fat. They’re glazed in a sticky sauce conjured from wildflower honey and vinegar, equal parts acidic and sweet, and served with fermented fennel and pickled fennel stalks.

The whimsical, homey desserts are the work of Anne Specker, the pastry talent who spent years at Kinship and Métier in Shaw. There’s a terrific almond panna cotta with oranges and candied kumquats, and a less endearing, cloyingly sweet apple cake. In my book, the way to go is her Amalfi lemon float, a soda-fountain dream with vanilla gelato, lemon granita, kiwi, and a fizzy juniper-scented soda. The perfect refresher after a Roman-style feast.

Neighborhood: Downtown Bethesda.

Dress: Casual but not scrubby.

Best dishes: Wine-braised artichokes; whipped ricotta; hamachi crudo; lumache all’amatriciana; cappelletti with sunchoke; rigatoni carbonara; lamb ribs; almond panna cotta; Amalfi lemon float; Negroni, martini, Sicilian spritz, and Pink Lotus cocktails.

Price range: Starters and snacks $10 to $20, pastas $19 to $28, entrées $44 to $48.

Bottom line: Bethesda finally gets the destination restaurant it deserves, with beautifully crafted pastas, easy-to-like cocktails, and a buzzing scene.

This article appears in the April 2024 issue of Washingtonian.

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.