Four of us are straining to hear our server sing the praises of the new Caruso’s Grocery in North Bethesda. Amid the bustle of a maroon-colored dining room plastered with attics’ worth of old photographs, plates and candles, we only manage to catch “All our pastas are made from scratch” and “This is probably the best Italian American restaurant you’ll try.”
In North Bethesda? The DMV? The East Coast? The country? The specifics of the boast are unclear. What’s certain is that pretty much everything that follows tonight makes us glad to be in the same-named spinoff of chef Matt Adler’s beloved tribute to Italian American cooking in the District.
The new place, opened like the original in collaboration with the Virginia-based Neighborhood Restaurant Group, shares its address with Owen’s Ordinary in the Pike & Rose development, an NRG concept that struggled during the pandemic. When the company’s founder, Michael Babin, pitched Adler on moving a Caruso’s Grocery into the expansive dining room at Owen’s Ordinary, the chef agreed, given the neighborhood’s demographics (residents who could walk there) and the reality that a lot of his customers were coming in from Maryland.
Remember the $10 drinks, updated classics, that drove a lot of us to drink at the first Caruso’s? They’re two bucks more here (hello, inflation!) but just as lip-smacking. A margarita goes “Mediterranean” with the help of blood orange tequila and pomegranate, and the limoncellotini gets its lift from housemade limoncello and a fresh basil leaf.
Recall the garlic bread, a conversation-starter consisting of a loaf of semolina bread, split like a big sandwich, spread with garlic butter and herbs and baked so the outside crisped? The pleasure comes with a sauce boat of four melted cheeses, finished with pizza seasoning, for dipping. Heady stuff still. Same for the fried calamari, fistfuls of seafood that are lighter than usual (thanks to a soak in club soda) and that sport a delicious semolina crust seasoned with paprika and garlic. Adler buys calamari only from Rhode Island, which he judges the most consistent and flavorful. Plus, he says, “it fries up crispy.” True that, and pass the plate. Any dinner is better when it starts with the bountiful antipasti for two that easily stretches to feed more. The red of the peppers and the white of the mozzarella catch your attention as the platter is placed on the table; the sting of the former and the creaminess of the latter, plus artichokes dressed in the house chianti dressing, channel the primary colors of the Italian flag.
It turns out the North Bethesda menu is pretty much a carbon copy of the list in the District. With good reason. Adler and Babin, who named the place after a store in Baton Rouge opened by Babin’s Sicilian great-great-grandfather in 1920, traveled to Philadelphia and New York for inspiration before launching their first Caruso’s. The pandemic gave them time to refine and rehearse the restaurant before crowds flocked to it. The same was not true of the spinoff, slammed the moment its doors opened. If you, like me, visited in December and left feeling as if you just watched a car wreck, at least from a service perspective, I encourage you to give the place a second chance to make a good impression.
The pastas taste like a top chef and some warmhearted nonna spent the day cooking together. Sprinkled with peas and bits of prosciutto, penne alla vodka suits the season, but I hope warmer weather doesn’t see the departure of Caruso’s Alfredo, a tweaked classic that relies on whipped truffle butter for its richness, mushrooms for heft and pasta in the twisty shape of a telephone cord (remember those?), the better to catch the sauce. Sounds rich, but executive chef Drew Allen, who previously cooked at Blue Duck Tavern in Washington, says the addition of pasta water to the sauce helps thin it.
The most beautiful pasta is the recently introduced gnocchi draped with pesto cream. The dumplings, made with ricotta, are the size of erasers and truly melt on the tongue; the pale green sauce, flavored with fresh basil, sautéed garlic and lemon zest, manages to be both rich and bright. Adler says it’s the pasta he’s likely to send out to “friends, regulars and VIPS.”
Your aim is to become the chef’s friend, regular or VIP.
Chicken parmesan is the restaurant’s No. 1 seller — and one of the top examples in the region. A lot of time and attention are lavished on the seemingly simple entree. There’s the pounding of the chicken breast so it’s no thicker than a plate, and tender. There’s the breading — toasted breadcrumbs, garlic and pizza spice that’s “delicious by itself,” says Allen, who likes to add it to soups. Finally, there’s the melty mozzarella and sauce wrought from 7/11 brand canned tomatoes, garlic, onion and olive oil. Eating the construction, the Italian Americans in my posse get sentimental. No one’s rating their family’s chicken parm second, but … maybe?
Thin slices of eggplant wrapped around herbed ricotta are, like the antipasti platter, a vegetarian comfort, and if you’re inclined to fish, trout sharpened with capers and splashed with sunshine — butter, lemon and wine — is the way to go.
Caruso’s wine list is brief, but in keeping with the Italian American theme — chianti comes swaddled in straw — and priced to please, with bottles including lambrusco and super Tuscans averaging $47. All 14 selections are available by the glass and half-bottle.
The tiramisu is a tall wedge of the expected flavors, and also denser than expected. The better dessert is mint chip (or chocolate) gelato in a sundae arranged with whipped cream, chocolate sauce and crunchy bits that turn out to be all-American Oreos. Now you see the sundae, now you don’t.
I’ll admit, I miss the intimacy of the restaurant in Washington. “Reminds me of Olive Garden,” a member of my posse grumbled during that unfortunate maiden trip in winter, when the roar of the crowd bounced between the two dining rooms and made conversation impossible. But between the dim lights, vaulted ceiling and improved hospitality, the North Bethesda setting grows on me with each visit.
Anyway, the second Caruso’s has a few advantages over the first: a nearby parking garage and lunch three days a week. (A salad, pasta of your choice and cannoli go for $25.) One dish is a superior version of what I recall in the District. I’m thinking now of the tender, all-pork meatballs sprinkled with parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes and served in a tangy tomato sauce.
What’s more, since it shares its kitchen with Owen’s Ordinary, there’s the option of ordering off the bar’s menu. While Allen says he prefers that customers get food linked to where they’re seated, “sometimes you just want a burger. And Owen’s is a good one.”
Nice of him to extend the invitation. Burgers are easy to source, though. Polished Italian American cooking? Chicken parm is just the tip of the iceberg at the latest, but hopefully not the last, Caruso’s Grocery.
11820 Trade St., North Bethesda. 301-245-1226. carusosgrocery.com. Open for takeout, (limited) delivery, indoor and outdoor dining for lunch noon to 2 p.m. Friday through Sunday and for dinner 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Prices: Dinner appetizers $10.75 to $16.75, pastas and main courses $21.25 to $29.50. Sound check: 77 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: Two sets of doors lead to the entrance; ADA-compliant restrooms. Pandemic protocols: Masks for staff are optional, but employees are vaccinated.