Osterias all over: A guide to Italian restaurant nomenclature

November 18, 2013

We are, it seems, being overtaken by osterias.

Osteria Morini opens this week, and Alba Osteria opens next month. On U Street, Alphonse Italian Market & Osteria is coming soon.  Ovvio Osteria and Osteria Marzano opened this summer, and earlier this year, Elisir became Osteria Elisir. Add those osterias to the eight others in the area that use the word in their names, and compare them to all of the other restaurants that use Italian culinary nomenclature: There are seven trattorias in the area, two enotecas, 19 ristorantes, and a handful of other derivations on those titles -- like the newly-opened ENO Wine Room in Georgetown.

Polpettine, a dish that is expected to be on Osteria Morini's D.C. menu. (Courtesy of Osteria Morini)
Polpettine, a dish that is expected to be on Osteria Morini's D.C. menu. (Courtesy of Osteria Morini)

The names aren't just selected for the way they roll off the tongue; they're meant to communicate the restaurant's intentions before guests even walk through the door. Traditionally, an osteria is less formal than a trattoria, which in turn is less formal than a ristorante -- though these lines are beginning to blur. Osterias feature simple pastas and grilled meats and fish, while trattorias might step it up with tablecloths, but will still keep the menu rustic and unassuming. Ristorantes, of course, can be quite pricy, and enotecas focus on wine.

In Italy and in D.C., restaurants don't necessarily conform to this ranking. While ristorantes still tend to be dressier -- think Ristorante Tosca, which Tom Sietsema once described as "the most moving-and-shaking restaurant in town" -- there's not a noticeable difference in formality between D.C. trattorias and osterias.

"Just as bistro and brasserie are muddled, we've lost that hierarchy," Sietsema tells me. He thinks the word is a little more glamorous than trattoria, which explains why, with six restaurants using it this year, osteria has become the buzziest term in town.

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.
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Fritz Hahn | November 18, 2013