Chef Frank Morales: making a stop on the way to going solo.
Chef Frank Morales: making a stop on the way to going solo. (By Tamela Kamp)
Wednesday, January 24, 2007

THAT WAS FAST: Rustico (827 Slaters Lane, Alexandria; 703-224-5051) is about to get a menu makeover from chef Frank Morales, who only weeks ago left the popular Zola in the District's Penn Quarter with the intention of going solo.

That's still the plan, says Morales, who clarifies: "This is a stop before opening my own place." But launching a new restaurant takes outside investors, so he's signed on as executive chef at the beer- and pizza-driven Rustico, which is part of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group and whose opening last year was followed by a less-than-glowing review from this newspaper.

"We're ecstatic he's joining the group," says Michael Babin, co-owner of the Alexandria-based restaurant company. "What he wants to do -- reach out to farmers and do simple things exceptionally -- really resonated with me." Babin acknowledges his new hire's ambitions when he adds that he wants Morales to help him develop "a restaurant or more" based on ideas that come "fully from his head."

But first things first. Beginning next month, Morales plans to upgrade Rustico's ingredients, add tasting menus and swap pecan wood for hickory in the fire (the chef says he prefers pecan's "sweet, subtle" characteristics). The name on the facade will also be reinforced in the eating. "Peasant food should be celebrated," says the 39-year-old chef, who has also cooked at The Oval Room in Northwest.

Morales's biggest challenge may come as a surprise: The incoming kitchen boss concedes he needs to "learn to make a great pizza." Despite 15 years in the business, "I've never had to make one in my entire career."

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