Another month, another new place to eat at the ever-expanding Wharf. The latest flavor is Italian, courtesy of restaurateur Med Lahlou, who aims to diversify his District portfolio, including the freshly minted Lupo Verde Osteria in the Palisades, by serving pizza and Italian street food at the appropriately named Lupo Marino.
Initial impression: Kudos to the designer, who pulls patrons in with a sea-blue palette, wooden trellises from which potted plants hang and an outsize photograph of Positano that dominates a wall and lends an alfresco feel to the dining room. Lahlou says he was aiming for a beach vibe; mission accomplished, a glance around the 75-seat interior reveals. Shelves of dried pasta, olive oil, beans and more await neighbors who drop by with home cooking in mind.
The kitchen takes a generous stance. Salads resemble mountains and rice fritters approach the size of tennis balls. Chef Todd Sprik figures customers want to share their food. He comes from Miami, where he cooked at the French-Mediterranean Le Zoo, and before that Manhattan, where the 2008 graduate of the French Culinary Institute spent two years at the rustic Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria.
Wooden paddles on the walls and a domed wood-and-gas oven in the visible kitchen encourage ordering pizza. But reconsider that, based on my encounter with the signature pie decked out with porchetta, chopped red peppers and broccolini — pleasant toppings wasted on a pale, thin-crusted pizza that would be tasteless on its own. Maybe panini are better? Maybe not, if my sandwich, stuffed with what tastes like canned tuna and no obvious sign of the advertised aioli, is an indication. Finesse evades a lot of the food here. Tuscan kale slicked with an anchovy-lemon dressing and capped with a blizzard of grated cheese makes a hearty and delicious salad, but diners look like cows chewing the large green leaves.
Paccheri arranged with crab, shrimp and tubes of squid that resemble the featured pasta raise hopes for pasta exploration going forward.
I strike gold, or the culinary equivalent, with fried food. Fill up, then, on Lupo Marino’s arancini, crisp globes of saffron-colored rice with molten centers of smoked cheese and beef ragu, and meatballs fashioned from veal, beef and sausage trimmings, presented with marinara sauce.
Service is uneven, and sometimes comical. At a recent lunch, a manager offered to give my party more room by pushing a neighboring table against ours. Minutes later, a waiter came by and separated them. We could have used the extra space. Our entire order, appetizers and entrees, appeared at the same time.
So far, only the eyes have it at the waterfront Lupo Marino.
40 Pearl St. SW. 202-506-1306. lupomarinodc.com. Sandwiches, pizza and pasta, $13 to $28.