Editor’s note: This review was written in advance of restaurant closures in Washington due to novel coronavirus. Napoli Pasta Bar is currently offering a modified take-out menu seven days a week, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. The Italian menu, expanded to include sandwiches and bottles of wine at a 30 percent discount, is also available via delivery services including Caviar, Postmates and Uber Eats.
To hear where he has been, it’s almost as if Andy Clark is cooking backward in time. While the Maryland native launched his Washington career at the revered Fiola under Fabio Trabocchi, Clark went on to work at far more casual Italian restaurants around town, including the neighborly All-Purpose Pizzeria, Red Hen and San Lorenzo. Since February, Clark, 31, has been making the menu more his own at Napoli Pasta Bar in Columbia Heights.
“There’s freedom in a small restaurant,” says the chef, who also appreciates the closer interaction with customers.
Anyone interested in his stamp on the shop should try his cod fritters. Before his arrival, customers got pieces of beer-battered fried cod delivered on a rustic, olive-punched tomato sauce. Clark gives the idea a promotion by shaping little balls from mashed fish, potatoes and espelette pepper, frying them and mounting the orbs on a bright parsley pesto sharpened with capers. They come three to an elegant order, but if there are four of you, expect an extra fritter. “I don’t like anyone to feel left out,” says the chef. (Bless him and other chefs who do a head count and apportion accordingly.)
Opened two years ago by Naples native Antonio Ferraro, who got his restaurant start at the upscale Cafe Milano, the trattoria is hard to miss from the street. The facade fairly screams its name in big white letters. Napoli Pasta Bar also enjoyed some early attention when the Michelin Guide awarded it a Bib Gourmand, designating “good quality, good value cooking.”
In December, after Ferraro placed an online ad looking for a chef to replace two Italian brothers whose work visas were about to expire, the first person to get back to him was Clark. Just before Christmas, the two met at a coffee shop at noon and by 2 p.m. had a handshake deal to work together.
If only all job interviews went so smoothly.
And if only all relaxed Italian joints served as fine a chicken as this one. Clark says he hates dry chicken breasts; he instead features leg quarters, cured overnight with sugar and herbs. The next day, he cooks the chicken slowly in its own fat and crisps it in the oven before sending it out atop some silky red peppers and crushed potatoes enriched with olive oil and hit with lemon juice and chives. He might not have an Italian bone in his body, but the chef has obviously absorbed important lessons at every stop along the way.
It shouldn’t take you long to figure out what to eat. The menu is a quick read, and there’s nothing on the page to send even occasional diners to Google Translate. Say ciao to your old amico burrata, served in all its creamy glory on baby greens with fried bread. Eggplant Parmesan benefits from San Marzano tomatoes cooked down with whole onions and bunches of basil that the chef later pulls out so that what’s left is a thick red cover of sauce that’s sweet and bright. To eat it is to understand why Farraro wanted to keep the staple on the menu. Soft tubes of fresh calamari swell with a bread-crumb filling whose second most obvious ingredient is roasted garlic. The appetizer arrives on a vivid red pepper puree that breaks up the white on the plate and wakes up the eating.
Note the name of the place and consider some pasta, broad pappardelle with winy braised beef if you’re disposed to meat or thin tagliolini with porcini if you prefer richness by way of truffle peelings, butter and Parmesan in the mix. I like the bite from chile flakes in the linguine with Manila clams, but not the overrun of olive oil. Still, it’s linguine and clams, easy to take for a whirl on your fork.
A pork chop is pounded so that it all but covers its plate, lightly breaded and finished with radicchio splashed with lemon vinaigrette. The bitterness of the garnish is a nice foil to the fried meat. Branzino is a bore, though, with cannellini beans that taste as if they went straight from pot to plate without encountering a single herb, drop of acid or grain of salt. Then again, critics are compelled to eat their way through a menu. Civilians need to identify one or two things to make them happy.
Last May, the snug storefront expanded to the second floor, which serves as overflow on the weekends and hosts the occasional private party. More likely, you’ll stay grounded and be led to a table by a server whose jersey reveals Ferraro’s passion for soccer. The glass-topped Vespa in the front window makes a better art installation than a table (the handles jutting through the glass are awkward), but its placement has the advantage of insulating you from the roar of any crowd and brushes with strollers. Yes, Napoli is family-friendly.
The noise may drive you out before dessert, but if you stay for anything, make it the dark chocolate cake swirled with ground almonds. The panna cotta, brightened with orange zest, is also easy to like. Tiramisu, in contrast, is dense going. If someone orders limoncello, chances are, others at the table will be offered a gratis sample of the housemade liqueur. The lemony spirit is a welcome touch, like the hot, salt-sprinkled focaccia that starts a meal.
Dig the colorful dishware? Consider buying a souvenir. Along with the water pitchers, the plates are made in Amalfi for the restaurant, which sells them ($25 for an eight-inch plate, $35 for a 12-inch one).
Napoli Pasta Bar is the sort of agreeable eating place that’s nice to know about when you don’t feel like cooking, but still prefer plates to cartons and a meal in someone else’s dining room: no fuss, no muss, with enough standouts to keep you popping in now and then.
An earlier version of this story misspelled owner Antonio Ferraro’s name.
Napoli Pasta Bar (Good) 2737 Sherman Ave. NW. 202-588-8752. napolipastabar.com. Open: Dinner Tuesday through Sunday, brunch Saturday and Sunday. Prices: Appetizers $14 to $16, pastas and entrees $18 to $26. Sound check: 77 decibels / Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: Steps leading to the front door, a snug dining room and small restrooms
are not wheelchair-friendly.