In August, the owners of Russia House in Dupont Circle and Biergarten Haus on H Street NE added to their portfolio another accent and a third Zip code: Alphonse Italian Market and Osteria on U Street. “Italian is my favorite cuisine, by far,” says Aaron McGovern, who happens to live near where he and business partner Arturas Vorobjovas expanded.
Alphonse was recently joined by a more formal sibling on the second floor of the same building. Open only at dinner, Nonna’s Kitchen features a five-course tasting menu and optional wine pairings. Tying the notions together: Justus Frank, 33, former executive chef of the esteemed Fiola downtown.
ALPHONSE ITALIAN MARKET AND OSTERIA
The effusive welcome to Alphonse begins on the sidewalk, where a sky-high neon sign spells out the newcomer’s name, and advances inside, where Sinatra croons and garlic and olive oil hang heavy in the air. As we’re ushered to a table in the back, near a dome-shaped pizza oven, my Italian American sidekick lights up. “It smells like home,” he says.
Even before we read the menu, we warm to the place. A fan of booths, I’m nestled in one, opposite the bar, where a flat-screen TV rotates photographs of Venetian canals and women competing in a spaghetti-eating contest. Thick napkins wrap around substantial cutlery on the table, and a pressed-tin ceiling puts faux age on the setting. Cheddar rolls aren’t very Italian, but there’s no denying the impression made by warm bread at the start of a meal.
Several visits (and an inferior Caesar salad) have taught me to head directly to the list of entrees; Alphonse is the uncommon restaurant where mains trump appetizers. The exceptions are craggy fried oysters alternating with singed lemon pinwheels and a salad of lemony baby artichoke hearts garnished with pungent anchovies, tender baby arugula and a sprinkle of espelette.
The pizza oven is stoked by bakers brought over from Naples. Their handiwork is marked by yeasty crusts and some relatively imaginative toppings, including soppressata, grilled eggplant and tangy goat cheese. Go for happy hour (3 p.m. to 7 p.m. daily) when the round of the day is yours for $10.
Red-and-white checkered tablecloths forecast homey flavors. Sure enough, meaty roast chicken arrives on a bed of fregola (beady Sardinian pasta, a ringer for Israeli couscous) and roasted red peppers to break up the sepia tones. Branzino scattered with toasted almonds should audition for an engagement upstairs, in Nonna’s Kitchen. Poached pears impart a delicate sweetness to the fish; pickled beets counter with a gentle sting. The pasta that calls to me most when the thermometer goes south is pappardelle treated to a quilt of smoked bison bolognese and folds of pink speck. Fresh oregano and rosemary in the seasoning lighten the (carbo) load.
The “market” part of Alphonse, which takes its name from Alphonse “Al” Capone, finds a skimpy selection of meats, cheeses, pastas and desserts on display behind glass. New York’s Eataly this is not. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a better cannoli in the area; this one fills crisp shells with ricotta cheese interspersed with orange zest. A drizzle of warm Valrhona chocolate sauce gilds the lily.
Open wide (wider!) for a hot sandwich at lunch. Meatballs draped in a tangy tomato sauce and dusted with grainy grana padano get packed into what looks like a loaf of bread. As I’m wondering whether to eat the second half of the monster sub, Sammy Davis Jr. lets loose with “Something’s Got to Give.” I take the lyrics as a sign to loosen my belt and forge on.
Alphonse Italian Market and Osteria: 1212 U St. NW. 202-735-0525. www.alphonsedc.com.
Open: 7:30 a.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. Fridayand Saturday, 8 a.m. to midnight Sunday.
Prices: Dinner appetizers $7 to $10, main courses $13 to $18.
Sound check: 75 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.
Guys in ties lapping up $90 tasting menus on ... U Street? Half-smokes and chicken wings, meet monkfish carpaccio and Super Tuscan wines. I wouldn’t have predicted it, but recent dinners at Nonna’s Kitchen, romantic in red and a mere 24 seats, suggest there’s a future for fine dining in the neighborhood.
Alphonse is a place its owners hope you visit a couple times a week, either for an easy dinner or for carry-out. Nonna’s Kitchen is dearer than Alphonse, in every way, from the champagne bucket and Berkel slicer gracing a buffet to the sparkling stemware splayed just so across on your linen-draped table. To keep customers climbing the stairs, the menu is expected to change every five weeks or so and feature a different region of Italy. Up first: Tuscany, the source of some of the country’s finest wines and most rustic cooking.
In Frank’s hands, the recipes all go to beauty school. Veal imbued with red wine, allspice and red pepper flakes? More, please. As fine as the meat are its partners: pureed kabocha squash, which tastes like a marriage between pumpkin and sweet potato; and cipollini onions, fashionably smoked over hay. Luxuries abound. Black Burgundy truffles are shaved over the pappardelle, robust with a ragu of wild boar, while a buttery sliver of cured foie gras distinguishes the roseate roast lamb, accompanied by a pour of Tolaini Valdisanti. The blend, made mostly with cabernet sauvignon aged in French oak, smacks of leather and licorice on the nose.
The most sumptuous dish on the current list is a regal version of the Tuscan seafood stew called cacciucco: prawns, octopus, monkfish, lobster, periwinkles — everything cooked just right and upgraded to first class by an elegant herbed fish broth tingling with lemongrass. To flatter the feast, the sommelier poured the crisp yet weighty Poggio al Tesoro Vermentino Solosole.
By the time you read this, Piedmont may have replaced Tuscany on the menu. Hopefully, the chef can find a dessert as lovely as zuccoto — vanilla semifreddo on amaretto sponge finished with chocolate — to send diners home on a sigh.
The servers are engaging, but they zip through their lines with the speed of Usain Bolt. If you need translations, heed their suggestion to approach the kitchen directly.
Frank, meanwhile, is a chef who’s eager to please, not just those of us who can and will eat everything, but diners who forgo meat and other ingredients. (“I worked for Fabio,” he says, a tip of the toque to the discerning Fabio Trabocchi.) With a little advance notice, Frank says, he can cater to vegetarians, vegans and the gluten-intolerant. “Being accommodating is important.”
So is being delicious. Nonna’s Kitchen is both.
Nonna’s Kitchen: 1212 U St. NW. 202-735-0439. www.alphonsedc.com/nonnas.
Open: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Five-course tasting menu $90; wine pairings $50 (standard) or $90 (premium).
Sound check: 72 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.
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