Pistachio semifreddo is a dessert that is refreshingly not too sweet. (Dayna Smith/For the Washington Post)

You don’t need beef, pork or veal to make a memorable “meatball.” Doubt me? Ask for the polpette at the youthful Casolare inside the Kimpton Glover Park Hotel, where bread, milk, egg, Parmesan and a bouquet of herbs — basil, mint, parsley — are coaxed into orbs whose flavor can fool even carnivores into thinking they’re eating something brawny.

Far from new, the idea comes from Puglia, the sun-baked heel of Italy’s boot. Cooks in the historically poor region of the country rely more on plants than meat for sustenance. You may discover this talking to chef Michael Schlow, among the principals at Casolare, or one of the restaurant’s servers, trained to share the stories behind some of the featured dishes.

There really is a Mama Zecca behind “Mama Zecca’s” eggplant. The mother of Schlow’s friend in Avellino in southern Italy was in the habit of setting out food, including baked eggplant, with a knife and an unspoken message for visitors: Mangia! Mangia! The Washington version is three soft blocks of fried pressed eggplant teamed with spicy tomato and mozzarella in a black skillet. I don’t need the image of a pampering Italian mother to help me finish the dish, its many fine layers suggestive of lasagna, but there’s no denying the power of a good anecdote.

Casolare is Schlow’s fifth Washington restaurant, and if it feels as if you just read about the prolific chef, whose realm includes Tico on 14th Street NW and the Riggsby in Dupont Circle, it’s because you probably did. In March, the Boston-based chef launched a trattoria in Mount Vernon Square’s City Vista, Alta Strada, followed the next month by a chic crudo bar, Conosci, next door. Schlow signed for his latest project with local developers in 2014, expecting to open Casolare, emphasizing Italy’s coastal cooking, the next year. Structural and other issues delayed the debut until July.

The name in English means cottage or farmhouse, a notion conveyed in the front bar, its ceiling decked out in oak, and the dining room, where cozy green and blue booths hug the walls. Each area comes with something to appreciate, be it the sunlight that pours through the front windows of the tiled bar or the arches that lend curves to the space beyond. Patrons reach the restaurant via the lobby of the hotel, animated with wine sippers during happy hour: an amuse bouche for the eyes.

Italy is celebrated for its restraint in the kitchen: If you start with quality ingredients, you don’t need to do much to them. The sentiment infuses the menu, a collection of antipasti, pastas, a few pizzas and 10 main dishes, half of them featuring fish or seafood. Having worked some magic for Schlow early on at Riggsby, the retro supper club, Philippe Reininger is reprising his role as executive chef here.


Bright red roasted peppers are teamed with white anchovy and red onion. (Dayna Smith/For the Washington Post)

Sauteed shrimp pick up some crackle from toasted bread crumbs and pack some heat thanks to chilies in the toss. Both accents are kept in check, allowing the springy seafood to shine. In another first course, a row of glossy roasted peppers serve as crimson canvas for meaty white anchovies, slivers of red onion and fresh basil.

The pizza at Casolare — Neapolitan in its simplicity and Roman in texture — relies on the same dough and the same type of gas oven as Alta Strada. Even so, Schlow has noticed subtle differences between the two crusts and is testing the water at each restaurant to figure out why the senior’s crusts are a touch more crunchy.

For me, the constant from visit to visit at the younger restaurant is no leftover crust. The base is very good and easily dispatched, in other words, crisp but also pliable and spotted with char marks from the fire. The toppings are few but fine. Casolare’s margherita is distinguished by a tangy tomato sauce; the pizza of the day has included a white pizza decorated with caramelized onions, pancetta and parsley — a touch sweet, nicely meaty, each bite punctuated with herb.


The margherita pizza at Casolare is highlighted by a tangy tomato sauce. (Dayna Smith/For the Washington Post)

Pastas take turns saluting garden and ocean. Tagliatelle benefits from a summery pesto that’s bright with basil, enriched with Parmesan and pine nuts and backed by a whisper of garlic. Maltagliati, named for its ragged appearance, serves as backdrop for sweet crab and pulsing heat.

The prize catch among the sea creatures may be the grilled swordfish, as much for its balanced sweet and sour eggplant as for the main event, firm but moist. (The scrawny branzino, on the other hand, should have been tossed back in the water, to fatten up some.) Meat dishes include pork loin seasoned with orange zest and fennel pollen, banded in bacon and served as three succulent medallions.

To eat a few dinners here is to discover a kitchen that recycles some tricks from plate to plate. Here’s hoping you like smashed fingerling potatoes, a mate to several entrees, including chicken that’s crisped from the weight of a brick and boldly seasoned with garlic, lemon zest and rosemary. A tip sheet would also include contributions from the bar and pastry kitchen: the Savoy Sour, one of summer’s more restorative drinks, and a creamy, not-too-sweet semifreddo veined with pistachios, respectively.

There are staff members at Casolare whose good cheer and sage advice you hope to encounter the next visit. There are also servers who manage to interrupt before diners have had a chance to try the food, and even when diners’ heads are bowed in low conversation, as if the attendants were working on commission and every “How do you like it?” earns them more pay. Crumbing tables, among other intrusions, should not require a full minute, an epic amount of time if a diner is in the middle of a talking point.

Glover Park, the source of the city’s best sushi (Sushi-Ko) and Vietnamese (Germaine’s) in another era, won’t be confused with Shaw. The area around the Italian upstart lacks culinary claims to fame and even much in the way of an answer to “Honey, want to go out for a bite?”

Casolare, thankfully, is cooking to the contrary.

2 stars

Location: 2505 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-625-5400. casolaredc.com.

Open: Dinner daily 5 to 10:30 p.m.

Prices: Antipasti $9 to $17, pizza and pasta $15 to $21, main courses $23 to $36.

Sound check: 73 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.

THE SCOOP

Location: 2505 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-625-5400. casolaredc.com.

Open: Dinner daily 5 to 10:30 p.m.

Prices: Antipasti $9 to $17, pizza and pasta $15 to $21, main courses $23 to $36.

Sound check: 73 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.