Tasty Piemontese Cuisine Shines Bright at D.C's Alba Osteria
Alba Osteria is the latest venture of restaurateur Hakan Ilhan and collaboration between Ilhan, Chef de Cuisine Amy Brandwein (most recently of Casa Nonna) and Executive Chef Roberto Donna (from sister restaurant Al Dente). Alba was conceived a neighborhood restaurant in D.C.’s Mount Vernon Triangle area, which is populated mostly by businesses. For professionals looking for a chain restaurant alternative, lunch options abound with hearty winter soups, paninos and “stuzzichini” (finger food).
But dinner is the true meal of choice at Alba Osteria, a space and kitchen that eaters should devote time to appreciating. The younger, hipper, more rock-n’-roll sister to Ilhan’s Al Dente near American University, Alba Osteria’s presents a menu which is more adventurous and more “foodie” than the conventional antipasti-pasta mains layout at Al Dente.
Choose to nosh, wine-side, on a selection of meats and cheeses, a platter of which comes with pickled veggies, sticky sweet mostarda, hazelnut honey and a basket of fried bread. Most notable, perhaps, is the house-made and hand-sliced “Salame Cotto D’Alba,” juicy, thick slices of cooked salami made with a mix of pork and beef. Or, dive right in with hot and cold small plates, ideal for sharing before the mains come out. Peeping shyly out from among the more mainstream, “Barbabietole” (beet salad) and “Carne Cruda” (veal carpaccio) are traditional Piemontese dishes that encourage D.C. diners to try something new. Fried pig’s feet, veal tongue and sautéed chicken livers served on a bed of creamy polenta are among the more adventurous proteins offered. Juicy, herb-poached rabbit meat--served on lamb’s lettuce with hazelnuts, olives, capers and onions--resembles flaky tuna salad, hence the name “Tonno (Tuna) Di Coniglio.” A cast iron bowl of warm “Ratatuia Piemontese”, with cauliflowers, cardoons, kabocha squash, garlic, cipollini onions and anchovy sauce, is a good vegetarian choice, and comforting on a cold winter night.
The Milanese at Alba Osteria is rabbit pounded thin, wrapped in woodsy Fontina and salty prosciutto, breaded and fried. Melted cheese adds creamy moisture to the meat, which is already tender and juicy enough without sauce. The breadcrumb coat is fried to a golden brown color and crackles under fork and knife.
Wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizzas are ideal for sharing. The “Margherita D.O.C.” with a light tomato sauce, patches of Fior di Latte mozzarella and basil comes to the table sizzling hot from the brick oven, with a delightfully crunchy crust. Despite the modesty of its toppings, the pie is packed with flavor and leaves the diner feeling light as a feather.
But pastas are the shining stars of the menu at Alba Osteria, each one unique with its own personality and charm. Piemontese specialties include “Agnolotti” (stuffed with tender braised beef, topped with savory beef jus and a ring of bone marrow) and the chewy “Tajarin”, which boasts a whopping 42 egg yolks per kilo in its recipe. Lifting the lid of a bamboo steamer uncovers the newest addition to Alba Osteria’s pasta menu, the “Mezzeluna.” The half-moon shaped dumplings are filled with a blend of creamy cheeses and served on a bed of steamed spinach. They are boiled in water that has been infused with hay. But perhaps the most unique among the pastas is the “Trofie alla Finanziera,” which Chef Donna claims is his favorite dish to prepare. The hand-twisted pasta is made with chestnut flour and is topped off with Finanziera, a classic Piemontese sauce containing chicken livers, veal brain and sweetbreads stewed in Marsala wine. The flavors are murky and rich, with plenty of organ meat present in lovely lumps throughout the dish.
Cameras appear when dessert is brought to the table and Instagram-ing abounds. Snow-white polenta (“Polenta Bianca”), sweetened with white chocolate, is creamy and smooth under a crunchy, brûléed caramel cover. It is served in a cast iron pan with rich dark chocolate gelato. Those itching for an after-dinner cigarette look no further than the “Coppa di Torino.” Some see a porcupine, some an ashtray when looking at this sundae of Nocello soaked cookie and hazelnut gelato, topped with candied chestnuts, bright cherries and crunchy meringue spears. The bowl is a wonderful mish-mash of nutty and sweet flavors, mushy and smooth textures.
And while the Piemonte-focused wine list provides plenty of pairing options throughout dinner, the tiramisu martini made with chocolate-infused vodka and Frangelico, served with an amaretto cookie smeared in marshmallow fluff, is a creamy, sweet ending that pairs well with any dessert.
Alba Osteria stays true to its intention to serve authentic Piemontese classics. Ragu is tomato-free; pastas are regional and house made; seafood is sparse. The menu, an immediate success with D.C.’s restaurant-goers, would also likely make an Italian “nonna” smile.
Lili Kocsis is a self-proclaimed gastronome. She graduated from Harvard University in 2011 with a BA in linguistics. She dedicates her spare time to purposeful travel, food photography, and writing about regional cuisine under the penname MyAmusedBouche.