The coolest gizmo I’ve encountered on recent restaurant rounds is the quarter-size grommet built into the tables at the new Nicoletta Italian Kitchen in Mount Vernon Triangle.
To see what looks like a call button in action, order a pizza. Before it leaves the kitchen, a server plucks from a wall a metal plate with an attached pole, which gets inserted into the socket on your table. Voilà! Your pie is held aloft, leaving plenty of room for more food from the corporate files of Michael White. He’s the New York-based chef whose Altamarea Group has made its presence felt in Washington, first with the convivial Osteria Morini in Navy Yard and more recently with the fast-casual Nicoletta Pizzeria nearby.
The company says his latest, a modern red sauce joint, is a model for more to come.
Can I suggest some edits? Because as written, Nicoletta Italian Kitchen is not ready for replication.
This is not immediately apparent when you stroll in, especially when the weather is fine, the doors are thrown open and a manager posted near the bar is so happy to see you, you almost mistake him for someone you met at a party. And if you were to settle in with vegetable fritto misto or some meatballs, and maybe a High Hat (a drink similar to the Aperol Spritz, as divisive as the 2016 election), so much the better.
The fried vegetables — cauliflower, green beans, red bell pepper — sport a coat made delicious with cheese and lemon zest, and are trailed by a dip of mayonnaise spiked with Calabrian chile. They were my first taste of the restaurant after it opened in April, and they made a strong case for return engagements. Meatballs come in a trio of flavors (chicken with eggplant, beef blended with Parmesan, and pork), the most distinctive of which are the tender pork meatballs, whispering of nutmeg and cloaked in Parmesan crema. A sampler of three, bedded on a chunky and tangy tomato sauce, goes for $12, dough well spent.
The menu is neither long nor complicated. But it still manages to miss some marks. Prawns are nicely smoky from the grill, but paired with cannellini beans that left their pot too soon. Chicken wings (why?) are not especially meaty or moist. Veal is pounded to thinness and fried to a stiff blandness. You’ll need a bite of the electric salad and shaved cheese that tops the entree with each forkful.
Branzino is as you want it to be in a basic Italian outpost: simply grilled, sea-sweet fish accompanied by a charred lemon half for some tang.
For better or worse, this is a restaurant that invites comparisons. I’d take the panko-lightened chicken Parmesan at Alta Strada over the routine issue here, and eating the ordinary chopped salad at Nicoletta makes me wish I were chomping on its superior at All-Purpose Pizzeria.
Clams Nicoletta are in a class of their own, though. Sweet clams and a hailstorm of smoked pancetta are on par with the fritto misto and the meatballs. And how thoughtful of the kitchen to send out the bowl with wedges of pesto-slathered bread for mopping up the broth.
Pastas are a mixed bag. Tagliatelle tinted green with spinach and paired with a satisfying Bolognese sauce and creamy ricotta leads the pack — by many meters. Sunny yellow pansotti scattered with shards of asparagus looks like an ode to spring. One taste fails to lead to another, however. Where’s the promised lemon? The cheese-filled ravioli-style pasta relies mostly on too much butter for flavor.
Consistency eludes the kitchen, even with some of the simplest dishes. One night’s punchy marinated vegetables are another evening’s dumping ground for sugar. Care sometimes goes missing, too. A rope of braised octopus has us consuming as much salt as seafood. And for a place that promotes bread, the rosemary-flecked cotton that passes for a bun is a poor way to treat a hamburger (whose smoked provolone appears to have been barely melted with a hair dryer). The accompanying fingerling potatoes are more to my taste, crusty from being smashed and fried and better for a splash of herbed oil.
Chances are, you’ll remember the service. It’s mostly too much: too much interrupting, too much wine pouring, too much “checking in on first bites” but also second, third, fourth and fifth ones. If ever a staff needed to learn to read a table — attend to diners based on body language, overheard conversation and eye contact — it’s this one. At least their interaction is friendly.
About the pizzas, based on a seven-year-old starter and inspired partly by what White grew up on in Wisconsin. They’re designed to be generously topped. Sturdy as can be, then, the 14-inch rounds are the opposite of Neapolitan: “Built Ford Tough,” one could say of the thick semolina crusts. Is that so bad, though? We tend to like what we recognize from childhood. My adult mind registers dark chocolate as superior, for instance, but my heart will always belong to milk chocolate, simply because Hershey’s is a brand steeped in so many happy Midwestern memories. To each his own.
The signature pizza scatters a party platter of roast pork, smoked pecorino, pickled peppers and more on a toast-thick crust. It’s a satisfying smorgasbord. The meat fancier’s pizza is the Calabrese, its shelf — er, crust — festooned with curly coins of zesty pepperoni and fennel sausage.
Polished concrete floors and shades of espresso dominate the high-ceilinged dining room, separated from the bar with frosted glass panels and a few empty squares for people-watching. Portraits of Washington and Lincoln dress the walls, while law books help fill the wine cabinets. If the noise level interferes with conversation, the restaurant wins points for being accessible: There are no steps throughout the public spaces, and two of three restrooms provide plenty of room for wheelchairs. (Beginning with this column, accessibility will be addressed near the star rating and other key information.)
When we declined dessert one night, a manager insisted on serving everyone a scoop of gelato. A drizzle of fruity olive oil underscored the restaurant’s Italian persuasion and gave everyone a new (dinner) party trick. Another night, we ordered dessert — and were reminded of better tiramisu than the heavy slab served here.
The verdict, after four meals: Nicoletta Italian Kitchen has moments of promise, just not enough of them.
Nicoletta Italian Kitchen
901 Fourth St. NW. 202-697-6888. nicolettakitchen.com.
Open: Lunch Monday through Friday, dinner daily. Prices: Dinner appetizers $10 to $16, main courses $16 to $28.
Sound check: 79 decibels / Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: No steps. Two roomy bathrooms are wheelchair-friendly.