Nostalgia rarely tastes so good.
Babin says he has been trying for years to get someone in his company to come up with a homey Italian menu. The problem? “It doesn’t feel challenging enough” for some chefs, the restaurateur says. He found a taker in Adler, 39, whom he brought aboard as a consultant in 2019 and who grew up in just the kind of place Babin hoped to bring to life. Turns out Adler’s father, also a chef, ran an Italian kitchen called Scoozi in Upstate New York, where his son started out washing dishes and later cooked while attending the Culinary Institute of America. Caruso’s Grocery, Babin’s most personal statement yet, is named for a store opened in Baton Rouge by Babin’s Sicilian great-great grandfather in 1920. The restaurateur’s great-uncles and grandmother took over the business in the next decade; Babin remembers helping out at the store’s snow cone stand outside as a kid.
It’s like at first sight at the restaurant, dressed with marinara-colored banquettes and, in keeping with the “grocery” theme, bottles of wine and more stacked on high shelves.
One thing Babin and Adler noticed during their pre-pandemic R&D trips to Philadelphia and New York was a strategically placed bar in some of their favorite restaurants. Customers at Caruso’s stroll in to find a small watering hole to the right of the host stand and a drinks list that has some of us rubbing our eyes at the welcome sight of $10 cocktails. The libations, created by NRG’s spirits director, Nick Farrell, are also good to the last drop. The Godfather Manhattan, treated to an amaretto rinse, is, like most drinks here, an enhanced version of its earlier self. The original Godfather, based on Scotch, became popular when “The Godfather” debuted. On a hot day, the pause that refreshes most is a margarita blushing with blood orange puree and sweetened with housemade orange cello.
Patrons in the dining room look up to see family albums’ worth of black-and-white photographs, many from Babin’s relations, some from the Internet. One of the few nods to modern times is a semi-open kitchen, where the sizzle of hot pans sometimes breaks through the background music and Adler inspects plates before they go out. Caruso’s is the kind of place where diners pause to admire their food before they tuck in. The only reason you know there are agnolotti under a pale green carpet of pesto cream sauce, lit with lemon zest, are the outlines of the round pasta. Note, too, how the colorful carrots in the vegetable mix alongside the model lemon-sauced veal cutlet mimic the crinkle cuts found in throwback bags of frozen produce. The difference is that the restaurant’s carrots acquire their wrinkles from a food processor in-house.
No QR code here. Instead, diners get old-school, plastic-covered menus with dishes described in a retro font. For the full Caruso’s experience, you need to start with the aforementioned loaf of Italian semolina bread spread with garlic butter and freckled with herbs from fennel to oregano. Adler says his father poured the cheese sauce over the garlic bread; the son sends the liquid wonder out in a bowl, for dipping. “I didn’t think people wanted to be licking cheese sauce off their fingers,” he says. The dense little meatballs are one of the few dishes you can pass on. Not so the extraordinary calamari from Rhode Island, sprinkled with semolina and fried so that parts are crisp and parts are soft. The strapping entrees are best preceded by a salad, the most colorful and refreshing of which blends biting endive, radicchio and arugula with juicy oranges and pistachios.
Adler aimed for a menu without any pretense and a focus on ingredients and execution. He uses ground, unpeeled 7/11 brand canned tomatoes, which lend a rustic touch to the cooking, while the thinly pounded veal demands serious muscle from the cooks. The chef says he questioned whether to serve veal in 2021, and went ahead when he recalled his father offered the meat half a dozen ways and thought Caruso’s wouldn’t be the time capsule it is without some representation.
The winy pork chop is a hot mess of slow-cooked meat littered with juicy cherry tomatoes, slivered garlic and herbs and rounded out with fried potatoes tossed with roasted garlic and Parmesan. Cue Carmela Soprano’s Sunday spread. Alta Strada’s chicken parm remains my numero uno, but Caruso’s version, light on the breading and tangy of sauce, is right behind it. Lighter than the agnolotti is pitch-perfect linguine arranged with sweet clams in their shells. A cloud of garlic announces its arrival.
The service is, like the food, personal. The staff is watchful and friendly, but never smothering. Splash some red sauce on your shirt? Someone is apt to come to your rescue with a Tide stick. (It works, BTW. You’re welcome, Proctor & Gamble.)
The kitchen keeps you smiling right through dessert. Make way for a slice of cheesecake, which, thanks to cheery red stripes of strawberry sauce, looks as if it time-traveled from Brooklyn circa 1950. The crisp cannoli ooze with Nutella, and spoons fly when a barge of a sundae is set down. Scoops of chocolate and vanilla ice cream festooned with clouds of whipped cream, salted peanuts, hot fudge and airy caramel corn is one of those extravagances meant for sharing but easily hoarded if it’s sitting too close to you.
Caruso’s repeatedly goes in for hugs. Bravo to Erin Dudley, the restaurant group’s wine director, for offering a dozen or so Italian wines by the glass, half bottle and full flask, and at prices in tune with the rest of the list. She says her aim was “something that felt nostalgic” (think prosecco, soave and chianti) and wines from small, family-owned and sustainable producers — nothing diners would find in the grocery store. She didn’t think a good chianti in a basket existed, but was proved wrong when she sampled the lively Podere Giocoli Diamine (biodynamically grown, to boot).
The picky Italian-American in my group summed it up best as he was finishing dinner with a complimentary peppermint candy, the best breath freshener after parsley. To nods all around, my dining companion said, “This is as good as home.”
Better, I’d wager. No one at the table has to do dishes.
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Caruso’s Grocery 1401 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 202-661-0148. carusosgrocery.com. Open for indoor dining and takeout Wednesday through Saturday 5 to 10 p.m. and Sunday from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Prices: Appetizers $8.25 to $15, main courses $19.50 to $38.25. Accessibility: No barriers at the entrance, but wheelchair users might need assistance with the two front doors; ADA-compliant restrooms.