And they have. Eight months after opening, getting a table here during prime time on a weekend night can be tough; that’s not big news if you’re on 14th Street in the District, but in an office park in Alexandria?
Unlike his last venture — the now-closed Ristorante Luigino that he and his wife ran for 17 years in Penn Quarter — this one is a father-daughter project. It began in 2012 with one of those “Dad, I need to talk to you” conversations. His daughter, Elena Pouchelon, 26, had found an investor and a space they could design themselves.
“My dad is my best friend. I knew we could work together,” she says.
For his part, Marzano liked the idea of a new start. “She has young ideas, fresh ideas,” he says proudly.
One of her first was to place a massive, granite-topped bar in the center of the long, narrow restaurant that’s located on the ground floor of an office tower. The bar offers seating for about a dozen people on one side, two dozen on the other. “I wanted something dramatic,” Marzano says. “We made a mistake at Luigino with a small bar.”
Pouchelon also suspected that diners in Alexandria would be more willing to eat informally than customers had been downtown. “At Luigino, couples wanted a table if they came in for dinner,” she says. “Here, they’re more likely to ask to sit at the bar.”
For those who want a table — and like to people-watch — the best view is the banquette seating along the red, black and gold back wall. For a different view, sit along the front wall of windows that look out on a small deck and lawn. There’s also a more private room in the back for groups.
The menu comfortably straddles the line between food for a casual evening with friends and elegant entrees for an all-out date night. And although you won’t find anything truly adventurous, it’s still vintage Marzano: top-quality ingredients and impeccable execution.
He believes in balance. Portions may be generous but never overloaded. I picture ingredients added by fingertips, not fistfuls. Our waitress pointed it out when we asked her for a pizza recommendation.
“Get the Deborah,” she told us. It’s the pizza named after the chef’s wife, with all of her favorite ingredients: spicy homemade pork sausage, fresh sage, garlic, Kalamata olive halves and onions. “All the ingredients are in perfect balance,” she told us, and she was right. Each bite had just enough of each topping to provide a full appreciation of the whole blend.
It was the same with my favorite pasta dish, the bucatini all’Amatriciana, a classic dish of extra-thick, hollow spaghetti — house-made, of course — in a spicy tomato sauce that Marzano says reminds him of old-fashioned restaurants in Rome.
He adds just the right amount of meaty cubes of pancetta and prosciutto, plus sweet crunchy bits of caramelized onion, the sneaky heat of pepperoncini, and fresh oregano, so that the bucatini can still shine. If you want a dose of excess, ask for a meatball on top. We expected a demure little golf ball but got a fat, tender tennis ball of ground beef, veal and pork bound with homemade bread crumbs and lots of herbs. “Meatballs are my love,” Marzano confessed later. “When I was in Florida, I saw they made really big ones, and I thought, I need to do that.”
The pappardelle with duck ragu was a glorious melding of wide ribbons of house-made pasta studded with thick chunks of duck meat in a rich, dark, wine sauce. The short rib ravioli with a porcini-wine sauce featured 10 plump ravioli filled with chopped, braised short rib meat and spinach. It was so swooningly rich, we could finish only five of them.
Marzano is equally deft with more subtle dishes, such as the risotto of the day with whole plump scallops, trumpet mushrooms and a scattering of diced fresh tomatoes. Or the split grilled whole branzino, kept simple with a light brushing of lemon caper sauce and accompanied by angel hair pasta and grilled broccolini.
The tuna carpaccio appetizer is a vision in pink, with tissue-thin slices of raw ahi tuna bejeweled with bits of red onion and pink peppercorns, garnished with a topknot of lemony frisee. It comes with a side of house-made potato chips, and the combination of salt, tang, peppery heat and the silky mild tuna is harmony on the tongue.
While we loved the huge grilled veal chop that’s served with a small pitcher of demi-glace, grilled shiitake mushrooms and broccoli rabe, the breaded and fried veal chop alla Milanese was a tad dry.
And the pizza pescatore, topped with clams and mussels in their shells, is certainly dramatic, but it’s messy — as our waiter warned us — and the moisture from the clams and mussels turns the crust soggy. We left most of it behind, which our waiter noticed when he came to clear away the dishes. “We should have listened to you,” we admitted to him.
“Listen to your server” is good advice here. The staff is well-versed in both the food and the wine. The waitress who steered us to the Deborah pizza substituted a supple, fruity Carmel Road pinot noir when the Super-Tuscan we had originally ordered was unavailable.
On another visit our waiter recommended
bonet for dessert, a chocolate-amaretto custard typical of northern Italy despite its French-sounding name. He was right: It was lovely and creamy ... and totally overshadowed by the other show-stopper he suggested: the Nutella pizza.
Even the people at the next table were grinning when they saw it. Marzano takes one of his thin, crispy pizza crusts, spreads it with a layer of Nutella, then whipped mascarpone, tops that with pistachios and a judicious sprinkling of sea salt and ends with a layer of mini marshmallows. The whole thing is briefly run under the broiler, and the result (despite my initial skepticism) is
great. Chocolate, nuts, a hint of salt to cut the gooey sweetness, all of it in perfect balance again.
Tom Sietsema is on assignment.
For stories, features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit WP Magazine.
Follow the Magazine on Twitter.
Like us on Facebook.
E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.