The newcomer’s chef is Cagla Onal-Urel, 37, whose name might not register even with insiders but whose work food devotees may have enjoyed at the three-star Obelisk in Dupont Circle, where she cooked for owner Peter Pastan for several years before returning to her native Turkey and hotel kitchens. Pastan invited Onal-Urel back to the United States to open Etto; her RSVP in the affirmative makes Washington a better place to eat. There’s a simplicity, a purity and a restraint to her cooking that I find irresistible — and that I wish more chefs took to heart.
Given the 2 Amys connection, your mission at Etto is probably pizza. I suggest you slow down, and smell the sausages first. The chef and company make some luscious links, among them a racy chorizo, a rugged wild boar and a pork sausage seasoned with fennel pollen and sweetened with orange peel. Together with some dense brown bread, loaves of which line the shelves near the oak-fired pizza oven, and maybe a syrah on tap, per the current fashion, the charcuterie makes a strong case for simple pleasures.
A salad or two should also find their way to your table. Shaved celery and toasted walnuts in a gloss of olive oil make a nice entry point, as do soft roasted red and yellow peppers and Sicilian green olives set off with a silvery bar of mackerel. If the peppers taste bolder than usual, it’s because of their marinade of mashed anchovies and sour orange and lemon juices. Lobster cooked in the wood oven lends its sweetness to a bed of chickpeas bright with fresh herbs, fennel and citrus. The base of the small plate, part of a school of “Fishies” on the menu, is compelling enough to be offered on its own.
Note to pizza enthusiasts: Etto bakes a different pie than 2 Amys. The younger restaurant’s dough is made with freshly milled wheat, a touch of spelt and fermented fresh yeast, and cooks at a higher temperature, a recipe that translates to a slighter sweeter and definitely sturdier crust than at 2 Amys. Of the six or so toppings available on any given day, my favorite brings together roasted cauliflower, pine nuts, anchovies and garlicky bread crumbs, the last adding welcome crunch. But really, I’m just as impressed with the simple margherita dressed with fresh basil, molten buffalo mozzarella and a swipe of tomato sauce (from canned Italian tomatoes, because they were the best of what the principals at Etto tried in a blind tasting).
Ahead of the pizza deliveries, servers ask if you want the rounds sliced or not. I agree with the philosophy of co-owner Tad Curtz, who tends the pizza oven midweek: As long as the pie tastes good, whether it’s cut before it reaches the table doesn’t much matter.
Specials are grouped under “Tonight” on the menu. Fingers crossed, there will be Piedmontese-style rabbit among the choices for many evenings to come. The chef seasons the deboned rabbit with garlic, rosemary and thyme, then rolls it into a bundle with a thin omelet and red peppers, all that goodness kept together with a crisp band of prosciutto. To eat this dish is to be dining at Obelisk, albeit for a mere $13. Another “Tonight,” another plate you’ll be dreaming about tomorrow: ivory slices of cured, smoked cod alternating with cool cucumber on their plate. Before the fish leaves the kitchen, the chef gives it a hit of lemon juice for added sparkle.
Etto’s wine list is a perfect complement to the cooking, with abundant Beaujolais and brash reds and piercing whites from Sicily to pair with the sometimes-rustic flavors of the food. Etto lacks an extensive bar, but it features several cocktails every night. One recent refresher, Plant It in the Spring Punch, introduced designer gin and Cocchi Americano Rosa, an aperitif wine, to watermelon puree and fresh lime: liquid salve for a hot summer day.
A pizza (or two) doesn’t leave much room for dessert, which is why I like the candy plate at Etto. It’s a little sampler of a few delicious treats — a chocolate truffle, chocolate-covered orange and pistachio-veined nougat — that’s just the amount you want after a feast. But I’m also fond of the slightly chewy ice cream, caramel most of all.
In a city that seems to sprout a new place to eat every week, staffing them with food soldiers has rarely been more difficult. Etto’s staff is that sublime combination of smart, engaging and attentive. How did the owners attract such a swell group? Pastan says they benefited from the recent exodus of talent from the Tabard Inn in Dupont Circle, where a family feud resulted in the dismissal of a number of veteran cast members.
The grand marshal at Etto is Onal-Urel, who thankfully pursued a cooking career even as family members objected. Trained as an economist, Onal-Urel says her mother fretted about the long hours she faced, while her grandmother worried about her finding a mate if she smelled like onions.
“Don’t worry, Grandma,” the chef told her. “I’ll find someone who likes onions.”