The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2016 Fall Dining Guide as No. 1 on Tom’s Top 10.
The pies have it — but so do the appetizers, main courses and desserts at what’s emerged as the best neighborhood restaurant in a city that until recently had too few of them. Pedigree helps: Among the owners are the principals behind the popular Red Hen in Bloomingdale. But the food — updated Italian American fare from chef Mike Friedman — keeps customers coming back to Shaw. I’m dreaming now of the basil-laced meatballs with their cores of molten mozzarella and an antipasti salad strewn with prime salami and fried chickpeas. Pizza is the star. Friedman’s 10 months of pre-opening research yielded a crust that’s chewy and crisp and slightly sweet (from malt powder that caramelizes in the dough as it bakes). All the pies are swell, although Duke #7 invariably calls to me with dabs of ’nduja and tangy vegetables. The newcomer’s neighbor, Buttercream Bakery, makes the Italian desserts. The rainbow cake, like so much here, sends me over the moon..
All-Purpose: 1250 Ninth St. NW. 202-849-6174. allpurposedc.com
Prices: Pizzas $18-$20.
Sound check: 83 decibels / Extremely loud.
The Top 10:
The following review was originally published Sept. 7, 2016.
All-Purpose review: The neighborhood restaurant of your dreams
From the moment All-Purpose opened in Shaw, it became one of the most popular tables in town and a notable lesson in collaboration. The owners of Red Hen and Boundary Stone, both in Bloomingdale, joined forces to create the Italian-American draw. They, in turn, looked to Tiffany MacIsaac, one of the city’s leading pastry chefs, to sweeten the arrangement with desserts made out of her Buttercream Bakeshop, which opened next door at about the same time.
The result? Everybody benefits, especially anybody looking for that happy spot between a spaghetti house and a formal ristorante. Which is to say meatballs and pizza share the menu with marsala-splashed sweetbreads. While All-Purpose was conceived as a salute to the Italian-American joints frequented by chef and co-owner Mike Friedman as a kid in New Jersey, his cooks subsequently took liberties with the idea.
That’s a plus when it comes to the tuna mousse, which Friedman describes as the love child of a Jewish and an Italian deli. Served in a glass jar, the tan whip of canned Sicilian fish, tomato and cream cheese is topped with a vivid layer of salsa verde and intense baby celery. The triumph comes with toast, but could just as well sport a bagel.
The cold antipasti in particular might have you thinking you’re in one of the city’s contemporary American establishments. Octopus, squid, mussels and rockfish crudo are presented as a lush ring. Each bite sings of the sea, with citrus, fennel and hazelnuts chiming in. An antipasti salad nods to old-school Italian, relying on iceberg lettuce and black olives, but also fried chickpeas that do the work of croutons and a vinaigrette that channels Sicily with its oregano. Cubed sausage and cheese share the bowl, as expected, and if they taste better than what’s in your average antipasti salad it’s because they’re best in class. (The salami, for one, is soppressata piccante from the esteemed Fra’ Mani in Berkeley, Calif.) Tomatoes turn up everywhere now, but cherry tomatoes on crostini at All-Purpose still stand out. Garlic scapes, sesame seeds and shaved Parmesan turn the glistening halved tomatoes into a glorious snack that gets its richness from — sorry, vegetarians — whipped lardo slathered on fingers of bread.
The only serious lapse in five visits over several months was a lunch salad of peaches, celery and cucumbers using fruit that lacked any hint of summer. Bummer. Otherwise, besides the clamor, it’s hard to find fault here.
The hot antipasti — eggplant parm, fried calamari — are rooted more in Friedman’s childhood roots, albeit rethought for the Food Network crowd. The big reveal in “Don’s Meatball Surprise,” for instance, is a center of liquid mozzarella within the marbles of ground pork, beef and veal, and maybe the swipe of whipped ricotta underneath. Friedman thinks the ricotta offsets the acidity of the tomato sauce; the tongue agrees. Early on, fried artichokes enjoyed a cult-like following, as much for their feta ranch dressing as for the Roman memory. The artichokes have since been replaced by cauliflower and broccoli, but they’re still set on a romesco sauce made with hazelnuts and every bit as fine.
The standards here are anything but. Salt cod fritters, golden in hue and fluffy inside, are enhanced with a dynamite tartar sauce and tangy vegetables. The surprises, meanwhile, are mostly pleasant. Beef short ribs appear to have been cut by a Korean butcher. Thinly sliced, the bones cling to meat that’s been marinated in marsala, herbs and black pepper, then arranged on a salad of filet beans, cucumber and onion. Lightening the load is a breezy tarragon vinaigrette. Your fingers will get messy, but that’s the price of abandon.
The food gets dropped off by a sunny cast of servers whose assurance and knowledge lead you to believe they moonlight in hauter venues. Just because a place is casual doesn’t mean the attention can’t be serious.
The initial attraction here was pizza. It remains so. Friedman spent 10 months working on one of Washington’s most original pies. A departure from the usual Neapolitan-style models, his recipe involves fermenting the dough for three days and using a deck oven set around 650 degrees. To make up for the smoky flavor provided by wood-fired ovens, Friedman added malt powder to his dough, which caramelizes as the crust bakes into a chewy-crisp pillow. His process results in a weightier crust, a good thing. As Friedman coaches his fellow cooks, “the fold has to hold,” an indirect criticism of Neapolitan-style pizzas and their soupy centers.
The pie that calls to me like Paris in spring is Duke #7, its base of tomato and mozzarella approaching salad status with the help of dabs of spicy spreadable salami (’nduja) and colorful pickled vegetables (giardiniera). A close rival is the Cape May pizza, basically a Caesar salad plus a creamy Parmesan fonduta, spread across a satisfying 12-inch canvas. Served only at lunch, it’s also a tease.
Desserts, including soft-serve ice cream made with summer corn and served with a crumble of polenta cake, compel you to try them even if you ate all your pizza. While the main attractions come from the bakery next door, they are sometimes treated to a finishing touch at All-Purpose. Hence the grappa-swollen blackberries and basil syrup gracing the dreamy ricotta cheesecake.
The wine card, like the restaurant, projects an air of approachability and whimsy. Co-owner Sebastian Zutant, who assembled the list, says his aim was “to make everyone feel comfortable buying wine.” His first choice for this delicately spicy food is the fragrant and minerally Vino Lauria Fontane Bianche from Sicily, a good buy at $40. Among red wine bargains, Zutant promotes the bold Tiefenbrunner Lagrein from Alto Adige in northern Italy for just $5 more.
The interior gives All-Purpose some nice (faux) age. Wooden tables rest atop tiny hexagon tiles, and antique fencing enjoys new life as rafters. Scarred walls reinforce the pretend wear and tear. If you’re a handful, the best place to find yourself is a vinyl booth along the rear wall. Solo acts might appreciate a stool at the pizza counter. My point is, the restaurant manages to look as if it’s been around for generations, despite the fact it’s a mere 5 months old.
From the horse’s mouth — well, the chef’s — your best chances of snaring a table relatively quickly are between 5:30 and 7 p.m. weekdays, Saturdays between 5 and 6 p.m. and after 8 p.m. on Sunday.
All-Purpose is all about teamwork. Ultimately, though, the best collaboration at this banner neighborhood restaurant is all your senses recording all the pleasures.