“Can I suggest something?”
I look up at Juliana Nicolai, my table-hopping inquisitor at Al Crostino, and nod, which prompts the chef to pantomime the preparation of one of the night’s specials: eggplant stuffed with pork sausage and finished with tomato sauce. As she talks up the appetizer, she removes the flesh of an imaginary vegetable and drapes the length with invisible tomato sauce.
A few minutes later, the dish lands on my table. The edible comfort, soft and tangy, makes me feel as though I’m eating in the home of a good Italian cook. When I ask my server to suggest a main course, he steers me toward short ribs. “Trust me: I know how the chef cooks. She’s my mom,” says Valentino Nicolai, a co-owner of the restaurant along with his mother and his sister, Lina.
A presence on U Street NW for nine years, Al Crostino relocated to Shaw in July after a developer decided to replace the original with condos. The new Al Crostino finds 90 seats spread across two floors, with a lounge upstairs. The look is modest. Red paint and Italian plates now grace walls that showcased graffiti when the location housed the tavern Cause.
A flat-screen TV on the ground floor flashes pictures of the owners and menu highlights, mostly pastas (all of which go for $12 on Tuesday nights). One of the welcome carry-overs from the old location is feathery fettuccine blanketed with a rich beef ragu.
A small school of iced seafood brings together mussels, clams, shrimp and a catch of the day, an upstairs display that diners are encouraged to inspect. The kitchen knows that sea bream doesn’t require much more than heat, olive oil and lemon juice to make its recipient happy.
The restaurant’s obliging nature forgives some of the lesser selections. Al Crostino’s surprisingly wan crostini (the bread could be better) wouldn’t draw me back, nor would the one-note meatballs. And while those short ribs are satisfying, the stodgy field of peas they rest on wouldn’t be my first choice as a platemate. A generous pour of Valpolicella washes back the meal, which ends on a high: ricotta torte, baked in-house.
All in all, nice to have you back, Al Crostino.
1926 Ninth St. NW. 202-797-0523. www.alcrostino.com. Entrees, $17.90 to $26.90.