Several things you need to know, off the bat, about I’m Eddie Cano, the paint-has-just-dried restaurant near Chevy Chase Circle:
1. Pretty much everyone — even one of the owners — hated the name when they first heard it.
2. Pretty much no one could stop rolling it around on their tongue after it was explained to them.
3. “I’m Eddie Cano” is the way an Italian speaker would pronounce the word “Americano.”
Truthfully, the name alone raised such a barrier, I was prepared to dislike the place before even eating there. Then I heard that a chef with chops, James Gee, was among the principals and felt duty-bound to report ASAP on whatever he was cooking, which turns out to be an Italian American menu in a part of the city with a discerning audience and too few interesting places to eat. Gee, 42, counts Jaleo and China Chilcano among his credits. I’m Eddie Cano represents a dream he shared with Rome native Massimo Papetti and Papetti’s wife, Carolyn, both of whom he met in 2005, when they all worked in East Hampton, N.Y., at a popular trattoria called Cittanuova. All three subsequently moved to Washington, where Papetti was a captain at Cafe Milano in Georgetown and, more recently, general manager at Assaggi Osteria in McLean.
I’m Eddie Cano replaces the Sri Lankan restaurant Banana Leaf with a bevy of attractive touches. Behold the long communal table, surrounded by tall stools and dressed with low displays of succulents. Observe the wall painted over with images of stars Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni and Italian markers including the Colosseum and Leaning Tower of Pisa — eye candy that’s less hokey than it sounds. Big front windows and skylights help make sure no one’s ever in the dark, and I love the way empty wine bottles have been transformed into dividers with the aid of copper tubing. If some tables are so close together your glass of pinot bianco ends up on your jacket when a stranger knocks it over en route to her seat next to you, at least you’re both at a banquette, whose pad keeps your back from hitting the brick wall.
I’m Eddie Cano might have been dressed on what the chef calls “half a shoestring,” but the setting doesn’t show it.
This is the smallest kitchen Gee, who has also cooked at the George Town Club, says he’s ever worked in. That explains his brief menu, at least in the restaurant’s early weeks. Similar to the popular All-Purpose Pizzeria (but sans pizza), I’m Eddie Cano celebrates the Italian American experience. The food is for the most part familiar. Spaghetti and meatballs and eggplant Parmesan require no explanation, and kudos to the owners for serving them in sensible sizes, what Papetti calls “medium” portions. Olive Garden this is not.
My first taste was fried zucchini. Make it yours, too. Listed under “Americano,” the vegetable is cut into strings, soaked in buttermilk, dredged in a combination of rice and wheat flours, hit with Parmesan, fried to a crisp and spritzed with lemon just before you get it. The combination of crunch, cheese and citrus is irresistible, and before you know it, all traces have vanished. A rival for your appetite, from the “Italiano” side of the menu, is a rope of tender grilled octopus, part of a salad of mellow chickpeas, celery and Italian parsley, and stinging with a red wine vinaigrette. Meatballs have tenderness going for them, although the orbs of veal, beef and pork are best for their garlic toast, a handy mop for the marinara sauce.
Baked rigatoni is prefaced by the initials BK, a salute to the late owner of the East Hampton restaurant where Gee met the Papettis. The entree — bolstered with crumbled sausage, smoothed with herbed ricotta and framed in a small black skillet — is a comforting tribute to Ben Krupinski, who was fond of the combination (and who is also remembered by a table, No. 17, near the expansive front window).
Gee does right by the basics. Spaghetti alla vongole is just the right wash of wine, slivered garlic, briny clams, hint of heat and al dente noodles, which, like all the pasta here, he makes himself. Thin slices of eggplant layered with cheese and basil-laced tomato sauce — hold the egg batter — result in a baked eggplant Parmesan that’s brighter than usual. Here and there, little twists make for easy-to-remember, sure-to-eat-again dishes. Panna cotta garnished with bright ground cherries? Sold. And it’s a treat to find in the bread basket the crackery little rings called taralli. (Gee wanted something other than the grissini every other Italian restaurant seems to serve.)
If the hard surfaces result in raised voices, keep in mind the entree average is $16 and the vibe feels like a block party you happened to stumble upon, never mind that it’s only Tuesday. The Papettis live nearby, and their investment in the block is obvious and personal. Customers I’ve talked to at the bar (this is the kind of place where you chat each other up) appreciate an alternative to Comet Ping Pong and Buck’s Fishing & Camping across the street. Beloved as the sibling restaurants are, neighbors cannot live by pizza and pork chops alone.
A short sheet of daily specials keeps regulars engaged. One of them, chicken with peppers on soft polenta, is a cacciatore you hope for when there’s a chill in the air (or anytime you need cheering up, really), while another, chunks of butternut squash that marry honey and vinegar in their seasoning, makes for a nice warm vegetable salad or a companion to a meaty entree. On the horizon, says Gee: more dishes for two, including whole chicken and osso buco.
Some of the dining room staff might look familiar. Massimo Papetti plucked several servers from his former roost, Cafe Milano. They’ve traded jackets for gray T-shirts but kept the easy charm and the deft moves, such as filleting a whole fish at the table. (The steaming branzino is lovely, by the way. Try it with some garlic-stoked Swiss chard.)
Since I’m Eddie Cano rolled out last month, more than a few friends in the area have shared feelings similar to mine: initial hesitation (that name!) followed by enthusiasm for a fresh option that’s kid-friendly but also handy for date night. Like the title, the restaurant grows on you, presto.
I’m Eddie Cano (Good) 5014 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-890-4995. imeddiecano.com.
Open: Dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Prices: Appetizers $5 to $16, pasta and entrees $13 to $19.
Sound check: 77 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.