A family restaurant lives up to its name
Floriana honors founding mother
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011
One of the many lessons I've learned over decades of professional dining is to trust restaurants named after an actual person. Why? Because more often than not, places with personalities attached to them enjoy family support and long histories. Plus, when your name is on a menu, you tend to take personally what others say about it.
My most recent experience supporting that generality occurred at the 32-year-old Floriana. I'm not sure I ever ate at its original address on upper Wisconsin Avenue, and I only recently made it to the "new" (as of 2000) location near Dupont Circle. But after several dinners there in the past few months, I look forward to returning to the neighborhood Italian restaurant brought to life by Floriana Nestore, who sold it last year to her son, Dino Tapper.
"She took my money and bought a big house" on the Pacific Coast in Mexico, says the amused offspring, who as an infant sat in a vegetable crate at Floriana while his mother prepared the day's menu and who later bused tables there for a penny a table. Tapper stayed with the family business until he was 18, when he went to work in other area restaurants. It was Mom's idea that her son "go learn how other people do things."
Some, but not all, of the food at Floriana is very good. Most of the dishes are apportioned as if for two. The service is breezy, and the rowhouse setting gives you the sense that you're eating in someone's home, albeit one that can seat almost 100 people inside and out. Be warned: The tables aren't big. To accommodate your order, you might have to return the bread basket or stop nursing your cocktail.
Plan to go home with leftovers. Among the appetizers is bruschetta the size of a Sealy Posturepedic, a mattress of toasted bread covered by a field of chopped tomatoes and leavened with a bright pesto. A satisfying plate of sausage and cheese could fuel a small office party. Floriana's tuna tartare is strangely creamy and wan for my taste, but I polished off the paprika-spiked serving crackers referred to as "chive pancakes." In the seafood department, the fried calamari engages me the most. The ringlets are light and crisp and tossed with glossy red African peppers that lend a wicked bite to the snack.
Scott Perry, whom Tapper recruited from Charleston, S.C., via Craigslist this summer, oversees the kitchen. Floriana is not so strict about its name that the chef, 25, can't wander outside Italy now and then. So don't raise your eyebrows if you spot golden meteorites of fried veal sweetbreads, each piece affixed to its plate by the French egg-and-herb sauce known as gribiche. The rich appetizer is best shared. Mussels take a steam in a traditional wine bath that does what it should: encourages diners to deplete the bread basket to retrieve every drop of the buttery herb sauce. Seared scallops over a hash of corn, andouille and lime tilts more American than Italian; someone at the table should order the entree, if only for others to taste its goodness.
A handful of the dishes have been on Floriana's menu since the beginning, and they include the founder's rich and strapping lasagna. Made with bechamel, fresh pasta and both ground beef and veal, the lasagna might be the best example of pasta on the menu. The prize does not go to the tagliatelle, limp from overcooking but still rewarding thanks to the minced sauteed vegetables (soffrito) and rich shreds of braised beef in the mix. Nor would I return for this kitchen's thick zucca ravioli stuffed with (too sweet) squash, or its dense and starchy mushroom risotto. In a case of more being less, potato gnocchi blanketed with a creamy arugula pesto would be better if there were fewer of the soft pillows and not as much sauce. Then again, leftovers!
Sooner or later, what happens at the country's top restaurants trickles down to neighborhood joints and fast-food suppliers. (Think about it. Even Applebee's offers a twist on the chocolate cake with the molten core that put the late, great JoJo in New York on the food map in the 1990s.) In recent years, I've been entertained by the penchant for serving soup in stages. Ask for the mushroom soup at Floriana, and you get a bowl of sliced mushrooms that comes with a pitcher of milk-based, onion-sweetened mushroom soup, which is added to the bowl while you watch. The combination hints of a fall forest: style and substance for $8.
Chicken plays the role usually handled by veal in a Milanese preparation. The breaded bird, decorated with arugula on top, is thick and juicy but otherwise not very compelling. For sheer comfort, nothing on the current menu beats a thick fist of tender short ribs served with colorful baby carrots. Perry rubs the meat in spices before searing it and braising the beauty with beer and chicken demi-glace.
The best finish is the most traditional: tiramisu. The confection is a nice balance of cream, coffee and chocolate.
Drop by the red rooms with the old light fixtures - and the poor acoustics - on Wednesday or Sunday and plan to drink well. Floriana's half-price bottles of wine make it possible. The pleasures on those nights include a 2006 Amarone for $40 and a Barolo from the same year for $50.
A member of the third generation is lending her name to Tapper's next project, "a high-end modern Italian" restaurant in downtown Washington. Sophia Tapper is only 2 years old, but she's got some good roots going for her.