The former chef of Brabo in Alexandria says he “didn’t know anything about the suburbs” before opening his first restaurant in Merrifield, only that the bulk of his competition would be chains.
Yet Chris Watson, 40, launched Ovvio Osteria with key details in his favor. The site of his casual Italian concept is a cherry-red corner of a mod apartment building, both owned by Boston-based DSF, which granted the chef a favorable deal. And in one of the tightest labor markets in any restaurateur’s memory, Watson and team spent money on head hunters to snap up some talent.
The rationale, says the chef: “We need to get this right the first time.”
A lot looks right at Ovvio Osteria, whose door opens to a bar and dining room that don’t suggest the possibility of an inexpensive pit stop. (It can happen. See the $12 panino at lunch.) Sure, the polished concrete floors and bare wood tables might remind you of a dozen comers on the scene, but check out the altogether fresh red houndstooth fabric on the back of the leather chairs, and the reclaimed barn wood bar dressed with a basket of lemons. Elegant, meet industrial.
A server’s question — “Still or sparkling?” — gets followed by your choice of filtered water, and it’s free. Managers Timothy Clune and Curtis Allred patrol the restaurant in suits, a bespoke touch. “These guys worked in fine dining before,” explains Watson. “They own a lot of suits. Why not use them?” (Clune lists Bistro Bis and Corduroy on his résumé; Allred has worked at Capital Grille and the late PS7’s).
Even before we decide what we’re ordering, Ovvio Osteria makes us glad to have trekked here. At a time when bread baskets can no longer be expected to launch a meal, the appearance of house-baked foccacia and olive rolls demonstrate that not every restaurant is pinching pennies.
Ovvio means “obvious” in Italian. The word also serves as shorthand for a menu of pasta, pizza and a handful of main courses that are indeed straightforward — on paper. But like real-deal Italian cooking, the food at Ovvio is good because it relies on high-quality ingredients and a chef who respects them enough not to fuss with them much. Juicy roast chicken (the breast is poached in olive oil, the leg is braised) gets escorts of garlicky spinach and diced ratatouille. Like the best relationships, it’s nice and uncomplicated.
First, get some fritto misto for the table. The snack gathers fresh calamari that has been dunked in buttermilk and rolled in semolina and finely ground 00 Italian flour before hitting the fryer with carrots and zucchini. Another good entry point for two or more is the bruschetta spread with a mash of white beans and joined by onion jam and pink folds of mortadella. Everyone should also gather around a pizza, which emerges from Ovvio’s brick oven thin in the center, raised at the lip and with welcome char.Among the six choices is a pie brushed with crushed tomato and decked out with thin potato slices and garlicky clams in their shells. The market is full of good pizzas right now. Count this one in.