Before the June debut of RPM Italian, I figured Washington had enough upscale sources for pasta to sate the demand. The addition of a menu featuring dry-aged steak Florentine and an interior with 350 seats — many of them occupied without the help of an out-of-session Congress — suggests there’s room for another Italian in the mix.
The 11,000-square-foot expanse in the Mount Vernon Triangle comes from Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You and a clutch of celebrity names, including Bill and Giuliana Rancic, best known for their appearances on “The Apprentice” and “E! News,” respectively. A seat at RPM’s handsome square bar off the entrance is a good place to give the newcomer a test run.
First thoughts: solid drinks, genial bartenders, small white pizza for . . . $9. Maybe we’re paying for the presentation, on a slate backdrop, of the pie, slightly larger than a saucer and decorated with slivered red onion, fresh rosemary and Parmesan. “Spaghetti & Meatball” isn’t a typo on the menu, by the way. The recipient gets a single bland orb of beef atop limp spaghetti whose sauce of caramelized onion and tomato tilts sweet. But I admire what the kitchen does with Brussels sprouts, shreds of which are tossed with creamy avocado and sprinkled with toasted bread crumbs to delicious effect.
A return engagement finds me on a banquette in the dimly lighted dining room, patrolled by a fleet of servers in cream-colored jackets. My remedy for the blast furnace outside is a serving of thin slices of raw scallops, splashed with lime juice and strewn with fennel fronds and slivered red peppers. More heat relief surfaces in a salad of watermelon, tomatoes and olives that tastes better than the combination reads and arrives beneath filings of ricotta salata.
Between courses, we survey the setting, a sight for sore eyes with its milk-and-coffee palette and an illuminated second cocktail bar in back. RPM Italian makes up to a dozen fresh pastas every day, one of which finds sweet lobster in spinach ravioli, each morsel capped with a basil leaf. Slow-roasted pork leaves the oven crusty of skin and fragrant with garlic and herbs.
Our server insists we get gelato, made, he says, in a machine that’s constantly spinning. Pistachio gelato garnished with boozy cherries is rich and creamy eating. Rum baba, light as a cloud, tastes almost refreshing beneath a dusting of lime zest.
Named using the initials of some of the owners, the restaurant hired New York chef Gabe Thompson to execute a menu created at the original RPM Italian in the Windy City. The chef’s résumé includes New York restaurants Dell’Anima, L’Artusi and L’Apicio.
The newcomer has some work to do. Unknowns can be treated like undesirables by the status-conscious sentinels at the host stand, and the tempura on the fritto misto is more tacky than crisp. But even in its infancy, RPM Italian shows signs of promise.
601 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-204-4480. rpmrestaurants.com. Entrees, $21 to $55.