During the Italian diaspora that bookended the turn of the 20th century, immigrants were drawn to industrial centers where they could find work. Washington, PBS reported, “was a government town without mills, factories or a commercial port.” That meant it never attracted a large Italian immigrant community — at the time mostly made up of former farmers who spoke little English.
Today, that hole in the District’s culture feels palpable in its restaurant scene. Classic Italian American fare isn’t easy to find. If you want a bowl of pasta from two of the city’s top Italian destinations — Masseria and Fiola — you have to order it off tasting menus that start at around $100 per person. More accessible spots — the Red Hen, Tortino, Sfoglina and Osteria Morini, for example — all charge $18 or more for pasta at dinner.
Ask your friends where they go in the city for spaghetti and meatballs, fettuccine alfredo or chicken piccata, and you’re likely to get a blank stare. That stuff is cooked at home, they’ll say. It’s too expensive. New York or Philly or Baltimore does it better.
I knew that couldn’t be entirely true. So I set out to find places in the District that serve affordable, quality noodles, all of which had to offer at least one bowl of pasta for $16 or less, with most of the menu around that price point. My carbohydrate binge involved sampling fare from eight restaurants of varying quality. Here are the four best ones.
Daniele Catalani was tired of the restaurant business. He had worked under award-winning Roberto Donna at Galileo, then opened and sold his own place, Toscana Cafe. So three years ago, he hatched a plan to become something of a pasta monk. Under the banner of Al Volo, he imported an extruder and bronze plates from Italy and began selling his creations from a stall at Union Market and at the U Street farmers market.
About a year later, Catalani was approached by the owner of Pasta Mia in Adams Morgan, who offered him the institution beloved for its heaping portions. The opportunity was too good to pass up. “We always got pulled back into the restaurant business,” said Catalani, a native of Pistoia, Italy.
Washingtonians are fortunate that he did. Catalani’s pastas, all freshly made in-house and cooked al dente, set Al Volo Osteria apart. Once you learn how much work goes into one $15 bowl of rigatoni alla Norma, tucking in feels like an exquisite act of theft. Those bronze plates give the trapezoid-shaped pasta a rugged exterior that holds tightly to a sauce made from imported San Marzano tomatoes. Eggplant is roasted to a rich, silky consistency, then plunked into the tomatoes, adding caramelized flavor to the jammy sauce. Mozzarella and basil add freshness and texture.
The acidic red sauce in the spaghetti and meatballs ($18) balances the fatty spheres. Fettuccine amatriciana ($18) offers softer noodles, sweet red onions and finely rendered bits of pork belly in a spicy marinara. And an order of ravioli di burrata, also $18, comes with enough circular dumplings to shame every chef who thinks that five raviolis make for a satisfying plate.
At Al Volo Osteria, sitting in the lofted section upstairs gives you a perch to peer down through the large window into the kitchen, which always exudes the scent of sauteed garlic It’s cramped, it’s loud and it’s perfect.
1790 Columbia Rd. NW.
Bistro Italiano/Mom's Skillet
Tucked away in a side street near Union Station, the dining room here is about the size of a studio apartment that could generously be described as cozy. The black awning with the cursive script and the Italian American hits on the menu fostered hope that this was the red-sauce joint for which I’d been pining.
One taste of the spaghetti and meatballs ($11.95) confirmed that. Moist and tender with a light, springy consistency, the globes made me want to hug the chef. Calamari al diablo was another winner, with tender squid and an aggressive tomato sauce that was both punishing and irresistible. Chicken piccata — doused in lemon and smothered with sauteed garlic and herbs — felt light next to the pasta on the plate, a helping of Florentine fettuccine with a rich sauce of cream and spinach. (Meanwhile, the steak in the veal Marsala wasn’t pounded very thin and was tough to chew.)
When the check arrived, the night took an unexpected turn. The name at the top of the receipt read “Mom’s Skillet.” No one’s nonna is in the kitchen. New ownership acquired the bistro about four months ago. Maria Villalda and Robert Velez, the wife-and-husband team behind the local Pica Taco chain, saw an opportunity when the space went up for sale. Velez said they plan to change the signage to reflect the new name at some point, but they’re tweaking the recipes they inherited to Villalda’s liking and getting a feel for the clientele.
And although they ultimately plan to roll out a Mexican portion of the menu, they don’t plan to deprive the neighborhood of its Italian comfort food.
320 D St. NE.
While Catalani has catered the Al Volo menu to the American palette, Massimo Fabbri — a veteran of Tosca — has made his recently opened restaurant in Shaw a tribute to the cooking of his home country.
Fabbri’s cooking astounds with its simple and clean flavors. The crown-shaped jewels of the housemade pasta selections are the tortelli — dumplings filled with delicate robiola cheese and black truffle. The purses are lacquered in a buttery sauce with porcini slices and truffles that deliver a doubly potent mushroom punch. The dish is downright decadent, but at $17, the price isn’t.
The pappardelle ($18) topped with rabbit ragout in a white wine sauce was equally stunning, with double-wide noodles and fresh thyme. The dark brown, wheaty strings of chitarra in heirloom tomato sauce, along with the $16 gnocchi al pesto, are better bargains. But the tortellini and pappardelle are more than worth the extra buck or two.
Be forewarned: Small pasta portions follow a European sensibility that encourages ordering other courses.
1316 Ninth St. NW.
Our party got off to a spotty start in the dim dining room located in a Days Inn in Van Ness that’s literally across the street from Sfoglina. The first two members to arrive were told the beer they ordered was tapped, and the first bottle of wine they requested wasn’t in stock. But once we were all seated around a white tablecloth, the charms of chef-owner Ignazio Bonanni’s recipes took over.
Bonanni, the son of immigrants from Abruzzo, opened Tesoro with his Sicilian wife, Rosa, in 2000. Dinners begin with a complimentary bread basket filled with addictively crunchy, cheese-encrusted focaccia squares alongside a small bowl of fresh bruschetta topping. Growing up, his family recipe for it was just called pizza.
While veal parmigiana is a mere $15.95 and penne with Italian sausage can be had for $13.50, we opted for tri-colored tortellini ($15.50) — sprinkled with prosciutto and sun-dried tomatoes — and a few dishes that showcase Bonanni’s housemade fettuccine. The noodles with a veal ragout sauce taste comforting and familiar. But they shine brightest in the Mediterranean fettuccine, an absurd bargain at $18.50 when you consider the amount of shrimp, scallops and crabmeat draped in rose cream sauce fortified with seafood stock.
All the pastas are plentiful enough to feed three people. “That’s a normal portion for me, in my opinion,” Bonanni said. “We’re keeping the to-go-container company in business.”
4400 Connecticut Ave. NW.