Kaiser Gill has served as an armor officer in the U.S. Army and as a counter-terrorism agent for the FBI. With the June debut of Noelia Italian Kitchen downtown, the serial risk-taker added “restaurateur” to his résumé.
The Italian title was inspired by the name of Gill’s niece as well as by the food he ate as a child growing up in Northern Virginia when his mother wasn’t serving the recipes of her native Pakistan. (Gill isn’t exactly a newbie to the trade; his family owns Shiney’s Sweets and Restaurant in Annandale and Aabshar Kabobs and Sweets in Springfield.)
Noelia Italian Kitchen follows Finemondo, only traces of which remain in the sweeping dining room, now awash in earth tones and set off with handsome arched ceilings in back. On pleasant days, the long front windows open to the sidewalk, enticing passersby to drop in.
Golden calamari in a tiny wire fry basket, the restaurant prop du jour, rewards the curious. Bruschetta, however, does not. The cottony bread and indifferent toppings taste like a convenience-store stab at the appetizer. A chorus line of buttery shrimp, freckled with chopped parsley, proves a richer introduction.
Attempts to find the kitchen’s strengths are thwarted by mostly soulless cooking. The saving grace of a bowl of gummy risotto: the tender scallops forced to dress up the mass. Chicken Parmigiana, stiff as cardboard, should cease and desist. Gnocchi in a wash of tomato sauce is generic but tolerable, like the elevator-music rendition of Vivaldi that accompanied dinner recently.
Gill found his chef, Carmen Gianna Piazza, when she was cooking at the late Extra Virgin in Shirlington and he was a customer with a dream of opening his own place to eat. “If I ever open a restaurant,” he told her, “I want you as my chef.” Her satisfying lasagna Bolognese demonstrates a flair for making the homey appear elegant.
To give diners “the full experience as they dine,” Gill offers dashes of entertainment. Wine drinkers select their choices by clicking on a tablet, and rear walls are used to project silent films, performances by Cirque du Soleil — “anything that doesn’t offend or horrify,” says Gill.
This diner wishes the food got more TLC. As it stands now, Noelia is more diverting than delicious.
1319 F St. NW. 202-347-1020. noeliadc.com. Dinner entrees, $20 to $35.