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Sietsema Review

The Casual Sophisticate
At Posto, the complex pastas trump the simpler pizzas

By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 15, 2009

Restaurateur Paolo Sacco envisioned Posto as a casual Italian hangout, and he installed a pizza oven to drill the point home. So why is it that this recent addition to Logan Circle frequently brings to mind Sacco's coolly formal Tosca downtown?

A good wine program prompts the comparison. There are plenty of interesting labels from which to choose, some from lesser-known wine regions such as Campagna and Puglia in Italy and Navarra and Terra Alta in Spain. Sacco tapped Kathy Morgan, his onetime sommelier at Tosca, to compose the list, which includes more than a dozen wines by the four- or six-ounce glass (the larger pours are better values).

The food can spark deja vu, too. The menu at Posto (Italian for "place" or "spot") was written in consultation with the top chef at Tosca, Massimo Fabbri, and it is executed by his former No. 2 there, Matteo Venini. Polenta with sausage and hanger steak with mushrooms await takers at Posto. But so, too, do such sophisticated dishes as agnolotti tinted black with squid ink and stuffed with octopus, squash and asparagus. A special on two visits, that $17 pasta course would have looked at home in the dining room of its chic sibling across town.

The address might be a familiar one. Posto takes the place of the late Viridian, next to Studio Theatre. (As at Tosca, Posto's dining room is partially hidden from outside view by gauzy curtains in its front windows, a detail that adds a dash of mystery to the restaurant.) As much as I liked the white and arty Viridian, created from a former car showroom, I appreciate what Sacco did to warm up what he inherited. Now, oak wraps around the fat pillars, and leather pads the banquettes. Newly installed light boxes in the front and back show off outsize grape clusters and Italian village scenes. A tall communal table separates the bar from the dining room and also serves as a great place to people-watch as you wait for a free table.

And wait you may. Posto doesn't take reservations, and the hordes eager to eat here sometimes bring to mind the Mall on Inauguration Day. If there's any doubt Logan Circle can use more restaurants, this newcomer disproves that notion.

The wood-fired pizza oven dominates one side of the room, tempting diners to add a pie to their order. Although the pizzas have gotten progressively better over the course of my visits, they still don't compare to Washington's elites. The problem lies not in the toppings, which include the expected trinity of tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil and the trendier combination of octopus, potato and olive, but in the crust. Sometimes it's missing salt, other times the base lacks proper browning or shows up stiff as cardboard. Ultimately, the crust fails my test: Unlike at, say, Comet Ping Pong, or 2 Amys on its best days, the bread is not good enough to eat on its own.

Venini grew up in Mandello del Lario, a village near Lake Como in northern Italy, in a family that owned a delicatessen. That's all the excuse I need to start my dinner with some sausage and cheese, despite the surplus of charcuterie and cheese boards around town. The chef knows quality, and Posto's servers know the drill, which runs to delicate prosciutto and fierce coppa, buttery burrata and sharp Parmesan, the genuine article.

If there's one course you shouldn't miss, it's pasta. Venini makes all but the spaghetti himself, and whatever shape of pasta you choose is filled or topped with something lovely and cooked as it should be, al dente. Spinach ravioli filled with three kinds of finely ground meat and brushed with thyme butter are delicate treats. Tender cavatelli show up with diced potatoes, sharp olives and a breezy pesto. As for that spaghetti, it's dressed with fresh-tasting seafood, artichokes and a tangy tomato sauce. "I love sophisticated stuff," the chef told me in a telephone conversation. His refined pastas bear that out.

His veal cheeks, on the other hand, are straight out of an Italian comfort food cookbook. Chunks of wine-swollen braised meat surround a dollop of rich whipped potatoes, with wilted spinach adding balance to the equation. Every bit as pleasing is the baby chicken, juicy and redolent of herbs. The entree is boned and served on a dark bed of soft kale, everything lightened with a drizzle of lemon butter sauce. It's a chicken you won't soon forget.

The same cannot be said of one night's special, rabbit rolled up with chicken liver pate and Swiss chard, and splashed with red wine, which sounds better in the waiter's recitation than in the (bland) eating. The dish was also dry in parts.

Venini spent some of his time at Tosca as a pastry chef (Gorgonzola ice cream was among his contributions), and he plays that role here, too. Warm fruit cobbler is more American than Italian, but it's a welcome sight on a cold winter night. More fanciful is what a waiter describes as a "deconstructed tiramisu." The composition includes a shot of hot chocolate perked up with orange zest, a scoop of vanilla-infused mascarpone and whipped cream, espresso ice cream and a cookie fashioned from milk chocolate and that oh-so-Italian favorite: cornflakes, crushed. The plate is clever and luscious, very Tosca-esque.

On paper, Posto looks like a bargain, with entrees averaging $18. On the phone, Sacco describes his latest project as the kind of place where a diner can get a pizza and a glass of wine for $20. But the kitchen makes it easy for you to spend more than you anticipate once you add on some antipasti or a side dish or (oh, why not, we're having fun!) another glass of wine.

Posto is young and imperfect. Dishes can go AWOL, and the roar of the crowd inhibits easy conversation. But if it's a delicious pasta or a seductive scene you're seeking, this is "the spot" to be.

First Bite

Tom Sietsema wrote about Posto for a First Bite column in December 2008.

So eager were they to be first with the word on Posto, a few members of Yelp.com "reviewed" the Italian restaurant in Logan Circle online even before its doors opened.

It had to be good, they reasoned; the owners of Tosca, the elegant Italian dining room downtown, were behind it.

"I was taken totally by surprise," says Paolo Sacco of the pre-launch praise for Posto, which opened this month. Yet the co-owner of both restaurants wants diners to know that "Posto is a different concept." Its food, including pizza from a wood-burning oven, is more informal. And so is Posto's airy interior, which uses lots of oak to warm up the room and forsakes tablecloths.

Casual didn't come cheap, however: Sacco says he spent about $2 million to buy and renovate the former Viridian, next to the Studio Theatre. The replacement, which means "place" or "spot" in Italian, has seats, including bar stools, for about 90 diners.

Swordfish carpaccio. Tagliatelle draped with pheasant ragout. Braised veal cheeks served with garlic-infused mashed potatoes. Posto's menu, created by Tosca chef Massimo Fabbri, 32, and executed by chef de cuisine Matteo Venini, 30, is short but engaging. That intriguing note swirled in with the tagliatelle, for instance, comes from cardoons, their flavor suggestive of artichoke. The early word on the pizza? The crust would benefit from more salt.

Kathy Morgan, one-time sommelier at Tosca and at 2941 in Falls Church, put the wine list together. Unlike the food here, the wine looks around the world for inspiration, with some good values in the lot.

Posto serves dinner only, seven nights a week, which allows the debonair Sacco to play host at Tosca during lunch. Evenings, he plans to divide his time between the two properties. The relaxed nature of the newcomer trickles down to Sacco's wardrobe there.

"No suits at Posto," the restaurateur vows.

Entrees, $18-$22.

(Dec. 17, 2008)