Little about Tortino calls attention to itself. Save for some red umbrellas outside, the facade is not one you’d remember. The chef’s name isn’t attached to a cookbook, a dining empire or a Top 10 list. The short menu reads like those at dozens of other Italian restaurants. Raise your hand if you’ve seen beef carpaccio and fettuccine alla Bolognese on the same list before. (I thought so.)
I adore the place. Get past the door, and you’ll discover two small rooms whose red or yellow walls are enlivened with paintings that depict a bucolic Italy. Noé Canales might not be a household name, but since he left El Salvador for Washington in 1990, he has cooked in such popular establishments as Tosca, Al Tiramisu and Cafe Milano. To eat his food, however well-known the dishes are, is to admire his attention to detail and sense of hospitality. After an ample meal here, there won’t be any jokes about making a pit stop at McDonald’s. If anything, you’ll be bringing home leftovers of the veal saltimbocca you couldn’t finish. Tortino’s execution is classic: sauteed veal, crisp prosciutto and earthy sage, a fine concert of flavors.
Foolish me for waiting so long to bring you up to speed on how Tortino has been doing since I last wrote about it — six years ago, when the townhouse space first opened on 11th Street NW. (“I like to go where there’s nothing at the moment,” says the chef, 44.) Since then, the neighborhood has grown to include Supra, a Georgian destination, and the Bird, with a flock of poultry dishes, and the city has evolved to become one of the most enticing dining scenes in the country — if something of a challenge to partake in. More than one national critic has asked me of late: What’s the deal with all your restaurants that don’t take reservations or make you wait in line? (The only person I know who could get around the system is Alice Waters, who skipped the line at Bad Saint when she was in town last winter. Being the mother of California cuisine has its privileges.)
The difficulty accessing some of our top tables just endears me more to Tortino, which takes reservations for its 60 seats but seems to have a free spot when I stroll in without one, too. Or, as the chef says, “I keep it quiet.” But not so hushed that you can’t pick out regulars in the place. Typically, they’re the diners who don’t bother looking at the menu. Knowing that much of the pasta is made on site, some of them gravitate to shredded lamb in floppy ravioli, ringed in a dusky wine sauce. Knowing that the cheesy stuffed tomato bests the pork chop sharing the plate, others might opt for fish.
“Would you like some sparkling water?” a host asks as he presents menus. The question sounds as if the fizzy stuff is free, which it is not, an unfortunate bit of upselling that’s forgotten when a basket of hot bread and fruity olive oil are dropped off. (Even middling restaurants present better when they dole out warm bread. See: Olive Garden or Red Lobster.)
If it’s lunch, I’m inclined to start with a salad, maybe a Caesar that stretches the definition to include velvety strips of red pepper and torn kale, slick with a garlicky cheese dressing. Or a smoky slice of portobello and garlicky spinach that serve as a nice platform for springy shrimp moistened by a light wash of herbed wine.
Tortino has a nice habit of keeping things light. Soups, for instance, often rely on a base of chicken stock rather than cream, which explains the lightness of one day’s tomato soup, but also a rounded flavor (tangy cheese in the bowl helped, too). Dressings frequently call on citrus to enhance salads, including the tri-color toss that incorporates roasted tomatoes, almonds and a lemon dressing.
Invariably, there will be six or so specials. They almost always make me rethink my intended order. Spring for the crab cake if it’s offered. Shaped mostly from sweet seafood, the appetizer sits on a fan of snow peas and a pool of bright red bell pepper sauce. Strewn over the crab cake are ribbons of fried sweet potato, for textural contrast. Whatever fish of the day is being served merits consideration, too. Branzino, white-fleshed and mildly sweet, swims to the table on a garden of cauliflower, broccoli and carrots atop a gently shocking ginger-carrot sauce.
It takes time and practice to achieve consistency in a restaurant. The owner’s secret weapon is sous-chef Luis Vasquez, who has been with his boss since Day 1 at Tortino. Having a second-in-command who sees and tastes as the boss does means the veal Bolognese will always call to your taste buds with rosemary, sage and thyme, but also dried porcini, Tortino’s special touch. The setup also allows Canales to spend time watching over his spinoff, Tortino Mare, which opened last summer in Manassas.
More often than not, Tortino feels like a diner’s wish list come true.
The tie-sporting waiters attend to their tables with a quiet assurance, neither too familiar nor the least bit remote. When they pour a glass of wine, they might throw in the names of the grapes that went into it.
Like BlackBerrys, linens in restaurants are an endangered species. So it’s especially nice to see them in a restaurant where the average entree is a welcoming $24.
Then there’s the sound level. Tortino is the uncommon good restaurant where you don’t have to ask anyone to repeat anything — save perhaps for the long list of daily specials requiring you to make tough decisions.
“Would you like anything else? a waiter asked as I finished the last of some jiggling panna cotta heaped with macerated fruit. My head shook “no,” but my smile signaled “more Tortinos in Washington.”
1228 11th St. NW.
Open: Lunch Monday through Friday, dinner daily.
Prices: Dinner appetizers $10 to $14, main courses $18 to $29.
Sound check: 69 decibels / Conversation is easy.