Ovvio Osteria, an Italian restaurant with good, uncomplicated cooking

September 25, 2013

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.

The food reveals a personal touch for a reason. “Everything you can chew here is made here,” says Watson, who left the employ of veteran chef and restaurateur Robert Wiedmaier after 10 years to pursue a place of his own. His Italian credentials include two years of cooking in Italy — Bologna and smaller towns in Emilia-Romagna and near Naples — after 9/11.

Watson’s risotto is the loose and buttery variety, swirled in summer with sweet corn and fleshy mushrooms and made more decadent with truffle oil (but not too much) and lashings of pecorino. Pork cheeks braised in red wine and set on a veneer of polenta are another contentment. A salad of chopped salami and chickpeas is enough to make a light supper, and I love the tie that binds them: creamy anchovy vinaigrette.

There are few dishes I wouldn’t care to try again. One of them is grilled swordfish, thin slices of which are served with a few green beans, tiny tomatoes and a black olive emulsion that adds little to the composition. The entree would be welcome at a fat farm but is less desirable in a suburban restaurant. If the spaghetti alla chitarra is over-cooked by a few moments, the pasta is nevertheless delicious for the burrata that melts into the plate’s tangy tomato sauce with fresh basil. Note to the kitchen: Could you watch the salt, please?

Ovvio clearly wants us to drink wine, stowed in attractive black walnut and mahogany lockers, with our meals. The restaurant’s list is divided into helpful categories with plenty of bottles priced $40 or less. Cocktails come with fun Italian accents. Riding on the rim of the house margarita is an inside joke, a tiny skewer of tomato and fresh basil. (Get it? They’re ingredients you’d find on a margherita pizza.)

Tiramisu makes an appearance at dessert, because who doesn’t like ladyfingers and whipped cream and grated chocolate? I’m raising my hand because this version of the classic is a bore; stiff ladyfingers don’t help. Far more appealing are Ovvio’s honey-laced pine nut torte garnished with candied orange and vanilla gelato, and a chocolate cake that acquires its moistness from a red wine syrup that’s poured over the dessert as soon as it leaves the oven. The result is ... intoxicating. Kudos to pastry chef Jennifer Short for the successes.

Missing from the picture at the moment are bodies in seats. That’s just wrong when so much is so right.

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★★

(Good)
Ovvio Osteria

2727-G Merrilee Dr., Merrifield. 703-573-2161. ovvioosteria.com.

OPEN: 11 a.m.
to 10 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 a.m. to midnight Thursday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.

METRO: Dunn Loring-Merrifield.

PRICES: Appetizers $11
to $18; lunch sandwiches, pizza and main courses $12 to $21; dinner main courses $14 to $29.

SOUND CHECK:
69 decibels/
Conversation
is easy.

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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