First Bite

Good Italian, with a little sweetish

"A to Z, everything is made by us," says chef Amy Brandwein of Casa Nonna, which replaces a California Pizza Kitchen in Dupont Circle.
"A to Z, everything is made by us," says chef Amy Brandwein of Casa Nonna, which replaces a California Pizza Kitchen in Dupont Circle. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

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Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The cocktails are serious. The banquettes are leather (and soft). Gleaming copper panels draw eyes to the open kitchen.

There's no mistaking the buoyant new Casa Nonna for the California Pizza Kitchen it replaced. Not when chef Amy Brandwein is also part of the package, setting the standards for the casual Italian concept, which opened this month in Dupont Circle.

"My goal is to keep it simple and make it satisfying and make it taste authentic," says Brandwein, hired by Casa Nonna's New York-based owners, BLT Restaurants. Brandwein is the former chef of Fyve in the Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City but better known for her work with Roberto Donna at his late restaurants, Bebo Trattoria in Crystal City and Galileo in Washington.

Except for the cheese and charcuterie, she says, "A to Z, everything is made by us."

That's a cue for a diner to order a plate of ravioli, plump with fluffy ricotta and dappled with a tangy tomato sauce, or veal Milanese, pounded out so the lightly breaded meat nearly covers the plate while saving room for two shades of juicy tomatoes and some lemon for jazzing up the dish. Like all the entrees, and as its $46 price tag attests, the veal is meant to be shared.

Time might remedy some problems at the restaurant, whose name translates into English as "Grandmother's House." A pizza's thin golden base and light application of toppings (spinach and ricotta, in my case) look promising; unfortunately, the crust doesn't have much character. Two of the antipasti we sample tilt sweet: eggplant caponata and Roman artichokes laced with honey and crushed red pepper flakes. And two bottles of wine come to the table at a temperature that suggests they have been stowed in Grandmother's sauna rather than her cellar.

Per the current fashion, Casa Nonna's tables are bare. Red-checkered cloth isn't absent; it's just found on . . . the wait staff's shirts.

1250 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-629-2505. casanonna.com. Pastas, $14-$22; entrees for two, $24-$56.


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