Cast-iron reasons to head for Mount Vernon Triangle


Amy Brandwein helms the kitchen at Alba Osteria, where a former boss, Roberto Donna, is on hand to help with the launch. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Among the marvels for the chef de cuisine at Alba Osteria is the openess of her audience in Mount Vernon Triangle. “Nobody blinks an eye” at the tripe soup or veal tongue on the Piedmont-inspired menu, says Amy Brandwein, formerly of the shuttered Casa Nonna downtown.

The chef is temporarily reuniting at Alba with Roberto Donna, with whom she last cooked six years ago at the late Galileo downtown. “Some of the food I’ve done before,” she says of her new gig, and some of it is more modern.

The crowd-pleasers in her new roost include tiny meatballs brightened with mint and draped with a sauce of red peppers, tomato and vinegar rather than a straight tomato sauce. Poached, marinated rabbit (“my favorite thing to cook”) is served as a fetching salad sparked with capers and shaved red onion. The tripe soup, packed with beans and vegetables and faintly funky, makes a perfect foil to winter weather. Lunch finds panini, including pork shoulder, broccoli rabe and a vivid salsa verde cradled in a house-baked wrap.

There are skinny breadsticks to start, tender spinach gnocchi that follow and desserts that sidestep the usual Italian standbys.

A lot of the food shows up in small cast-iron casseroles. “They don’t break as much as other things,” Brandwein says, plus “they keep food hot.” The containers also echo the metal work throughout the restaurant. Polenta sweetened with white chocolate and bruleed to a light crackle looks especially appealing in its dark pan.

Hakan Ilhan, who also owns Al Dente near American University, where Donna is expected to return, says he spent $1.6 million on the 5,500-square-foot restaurant, welcoming with splashes of orange and designed to accommodate as many as three private parties. To further entice young neighbors, the osteria puts its lively bar in the center of the action.

“We got it right on this one,” humble-brags Ilhan.

I concur, with a few exceptions. The crust on the pizza could be crisper; and spare us the waiter’s line about how the “flowing” kitchen sends out dishes as they’re ready, “although we can force a dish if you want it sooner.” Surely I’m not the only diner weary of eating at the convenience of the kitchen rather than when it suits me.

Ilhan says he has registered a name for yet another Italian eatery, which he hopes to open in Merrifield. Lest anyone think he’s going the chain route, Ilhan promises that Asti Trattoria will have its own identity, right down to a separate chef.

For now, at Alba, he says, “it’s going to be Amy’s show.”

tom.sietsema@washpost.com

425 I St. NW. 202-733-4454. albaosteriadc.com. Dinner entrees, $17 to $19.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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