One of the best things about D.C.'s multicultural population is that you can find even the most obscure cuisine in the district if you know where to look. While you don't have to look far to find Italian, really good Italian requires a little more diligence. Fortunately, I've done the work for you. Here are the crib notes to my top 10 Italian eateries in the Nation's Capital.
Chef Fabio Trabocchi and his Penn Quarter trattoria Fiola have both won too many awards to mention here. The reasons are obvious; just look at the menu. If you can get it, go for the lobster ravioli with ginger and chives, but save room for the bomboloni (ricotta doughnuts). There are also tasting menus with optional wine pairings, and Maria Trabocchi’s three-course light spring harvest menu. The restaurant’s main entrance is on Indiana Avenue, which is somewhat tricky, as the address is directly opposite on Pennsylvania Avenue.
2. Acqua Al 2
The irresistible draw at Acqua Al 2 in Capitol Hill’s Eastern Market area is the chef’s choice samplers: Diners can order anything on the menu a la carte and/or leave it up to the chef to choose three house salads, or five fresh vegetarian pastas, or even three of the restaurant’s most popular steaks. And then if you’re up for more, he’ll choose four cheeses and/or four house desserts. There’s full-service dining at the bar, which serves craft beers and high-end wines by the glass, along with premium cocktails.
Graffiato, award-winning chef Mike Isabella’s nod (with a wink) to his grandmother’s Italian cooking, brings a taste of the Mediterranean to Chinatown. People are lining up to taste his locally cured ham, hand-rolled pasta, and inventive pizzas and small plates. Vegetarians rejoice over dishes like broccolini with red pepper relish, walnuts, and feta. And in addition to pizzas like the White House with prosciutto and black pepper honey, the wood oven turns out dishes like chicken in pepperoni sauce. A chef’s tasting menu at $55 per person will let you see what Isabella really likes to eat.
4. Casa Luca
Is it cheating to include a second Italian restaurant owned by chef Fabio Trabocchi? Casa Luca, named after Trabocchi’s young son, opened in July 2013, much to the relief of those who just couldn’t get a reservation at Fiola. This Chinatown osteria has a more modest profile, though. Visitors here are encouraged to dine “family-style,” and the food is sized accordingly. Dishes like fusilli with burrata and black pepper illustrate the beauty of simplicity, and a 24 oz. platter of grilled meats begs to be shared. The restaurant also has an interesting bar menu and some very reasonably priced bottles of wine. As with Fiola, the entrance is not where you'd expect. Look around the corner on 11th Street.
5. Al Tiramisu
Cozy Al Tiramisu, near the Dupont Circle metro station, is the only D.C. restaurant I know of that’s been awarded the “Insegna del Ristorante Italiano,” or the seal of approval of the President of Italy. Housemade pastas like ricotta gnocchi with fresh cherry tomato sauce, wine-braised beef short ribs, and its namesake dessert are among the dishes that have kept this place on diners’ minds for decades. The wine list comprises more than 200 wines, all Italian, including several rare vintages. Chef Luigi Diotaiuti was D.C.’s first professional certified sommelier, and Al Tiramisu has two others on staff so you know they take their vino seriously.
Opened in 2009, chef Martin Lackovic’s McPherson Square restaurant Siroc is named for a wind that blows from Northern Africa to Italy and the Mediterranean — areas that are in Lackovic’s culinary comfort zone. The globe-trotting chef funnels his adventurous spirit into a seasonal menu of modern Italian dishes such as whole boneless branzino. Can’t decide between two pastas? They’ll give you a half order of each. There’s also a great wine list with some especially good Italian selections.
JoAnna Filomena wanted to recreate not only the taste of her mother’s meals, but the entire sensory experience, and at the sweetly kitschy Filomena Ristorante in Georgetown, she did just that. Although the abundance of knick-knacks is not for everyone, the traditional old-world Italian cooking and huge portions keep patrons coming back for more. And one family tradition that no one seems to mind is the free Sambuca and Amaretto brought to every table after dinner. Try the Linguini Cardinale with lobster sauce, said to be a favorite of President Clinton.
Small and intimate (in a totally charming way) and with a large outdoor patio, Maple in Columbia Heights wins raves for its delicious and inexpensive food. Word of mouth has made this neighborhood spot the place to come for pastas such as tagliatelle with wild mushrooms and marsala in a light cream sauce, and their ever-popular panini, including a version with short ribs, fontina, and pickled red onions, which is served with bean salad or mixed greens on the side. They also have some of the best deals in town on wine and beer, especially during happy hour.
An unassuming doorway on 11th Street NW in Logan Circle leads diners into surprisingly elegant Tortino, which has become known far and wide for the quality of both its food and its service. The lamb shank and spinach pappardelle with chicken, wild mushrooms, and cream sauce send peoples’ eyes rolling to the back of their heads, and the bartender whips up a mean whiskey sour (he makes his own sweet and sour mix with fresh lemons). The area is more residential than commercial, but the restaurant isn’t too far from the Mt. Vernon Square metro stop. It’s definitely worth the walk.
Variety is definitely the spice of life at Ristorante Piccolo in Georgetown, which boasts an extensive menu with starters like mozzarella carrozza, wrapped in bread, pan-fried in garlic butter, and topped with anchovy; and handmade saffron ravioli stuffed with chicken, vegetables, herbs, and parmesan in a sage butter sauce. There are also nightly specials, a kids’ menu, special prix fixe dinners, and good brunch deals that are priced based on whether you have one mimosa or three, because, well, who has two?