Tom Sietsema on Casa Nonna: Latest Italian offering lands in Dupont Circle

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, December 5, 2010; W34

Stracci is Italian for "rags," and the torn sheets of pasta on my plate at yet another new Italian restaurant in Washington look the part. Rolled out from semolina flour and local eggs, and layered with tangy tomato sauce and winy beef short ribs, the dish is served in a portion that suggests it be shared.

Same goes for the lasagna, a strapping casserole that packs in 10 or so layers of thin pasta, Bolognese sauce, creamy bechamel and a couple of Italian cheeses, and could pass for a confirmation dinner in Italy. Veal Milanese is plus-size, too, pounded almost as thin as the plate it nearly covers. Like the aforementioned pastas, the entree is a generous and satisfying example of what the kitchen does well. It also lends credence to the restaurant's inspiration: "Casa Nonna" translates as "Grandmother's House."

This year's uptick in Italian restaurants (before Casa Nonna opened, Acqua al 2 popped up on the Hill along with Il Canale in Georgetown, Carmine's in Penn Quarter, Bond 45 in National Harbor and Ozzie's Corner Italian in Fairfax) shouldn't come as a surprise. Pasta and pizza tend to be familiar, filling and inexpensive: serious comfort in tough times. Casa Nonna is the only one of the bunch to be helmed by a woman, Amy Brandwein, and she brings strong credentials to the task, having spent nearly eight years cooking under veteran Washington chef Roberto Donna.

The bar and multiple dining rooms, unveiled in September by the owners of the New York-based BLT Restaurants, are casual and comfortable. Style-wise, they fall somewhere between the rustic Acqua al 2 and the rich Bond 45. They also appear to have been dressed by the Italian Trade Commission. Green bottles of Lurisia water and red boxes of Lazzaroni amaretto cookies brighten the shelves separating ,but not hiding, the series of eating rooms. Casa Nonna's dreamy lighting and polished service further distance the restaurant from its predecessor in the space, a California Pizza Kitchen. (Are there microphones under the tables? Because just as I need something, someone is there to make sure I get it.) Up front is an oval marble bar fronted with espresso-colored stools; it's great for people-watching and fashion-forward cocktails. Margaritas are enhanced with blood orange juice, and fig preserves sweeten the "Figaro" based on rye. The air is fragrant, fueled in part by the precursor to dinner: warm garlic bread slathered with the obvious, parsley-and-shallot butter. It's a nosh that threatens to ruin your appetite if you aren't mindful.

I never thought I would type this, being the grazer that I am, but I can't be the only diner tired of seeing sausage and cheese as appetizers (and all too often including the same selections). Casa Nonna opens its menu with the ubiquitous salsiccia and formaggio, but it also highlights more than a dozen far more interesting small plates. Risotto balls as big as jawbreakers are soft and cheesy beneath their golden crusts. A nest of velvety roasted peppers picks up nice heat from chili flakes and welcome tang from capers and lemon juice; a thatch of crostini makes a delicious support for the antipasto. Early problems with sweetness have been tempered; these days the eggplant caponata goes down as it should, as a snack or a side dish rather than as a last course. Shrimp with chilies was a bust, though; the seafood tasted of fatigue when I ordered it.

There are pizzas, too, because what restaurant with a couple of wood-fueled fires wouldn't serve them these days? Casa Nonna's pies are baked following the Neapolitan code, with buffalo mozzarella and San Marzano tomatoes, but the lipped base is unpredictable: sometimes a tad soupy, other times stiff as cardboard. If you're compelled to order a pie, the combination I like best mixes fennel sausage, molten cheese and pinches of greens.

Lunch finds panini, and one of the lustiest packs the chef's terrific short ribs, horseradish-spiked mayonnaise and soft-cooked onions in a roll that can't contain such richness (the bread needs to be sturdier). Like all of the sandwiches, this one comes with a choice of salad or that caponata.

Entree prices seem pre-recessionary. Shrimp scampi will set you back $38, and the T-bone costs $56. The fine print explains that "pastas and main courses are designed to be shared family-style and will be served to the center" of the table unless you request otherwise. As at Carmine's, most of the big plates are built for two (or more).

A case of up-selling? Brandwein thinks otherwise. "We're trying to replicate the good things about having a Sunday dinner at your family's house," says the chef, and part of that is to "celebrate sharing." Take it from someone who knows: Those hearty pastas are even better the day after.

From the water, grilled swordfish is thick, meaty and sharpened with olives, capers and garlic: another crowd-pleaser. Or almost. The entree was tepid on my last visit. (Temperatures are a problem here; every red wine I've sipped has been warm.) On a happier note, the fritto misto was both hot and sweetly sea-fresh, an ocean of scallops, cod, calamari and shrimp captured in a crisp veil of batter. The vegetable side dishes include spinach sauteed with garlic, cooked to flatter the green.

Brandwein's first restaurant job was at the pastry station at the late Galileo downtown. Her sweets at Casa Nonna reflect a good study. Bomboloni are fried to order and garnished with crisp, dime-size meringues and candied lemon that are every bit as fun to eat as the warm doughnuts. Another distinguished sharing possibility is the cookie plate, which speaks beautiful Italian with, among other treats, pistachio-veined chocolate biscotti, thumbprints dotted with fruit jam, delicate cats' tongues and candied orange peel. Cannoli get bonus points for their crisp pastry shells and fresh-tasting ricotta filling brightened with orange zest.

Washington has seen a lot of New York imports in recent years, but Manhattan is poised to receive a D.C. flavor next spring, when BLT Restaurants plans to open a second Casa Nonna at 310 W. 38th St. It's a case of reverse migration, with a grandmother's touch.


Two stars (Good)

Casa Nonna

1250 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-629-2505.

Open: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5:30 to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday. Valet parking Wednesday through Saturday at dinner.

Metro:Dupont Circle.

Prices: Lunch salads and sandwiches $10 to $15, entrees $16 to $22; dinner antipasti $6 to $12, entrees (for two) $24 to $56.

Sound check: 71 decibels/Must speak with a raised voice.

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