By Mike Laws - 12/20/07 06:32 PM EST
Sure, scent may be the sense connected most closely to memory. But diners at Domaso Trattoria Moderna, the newest addition to Rosslyn’s burgeoning restaurant scene, can be forgiven for thinking it’s taste that’s most capable of rustling long-buried recollections.
That’s not the result of any synesthetic confusion, but rather a testament to the authenticity of Executive Chef Massimo Fedozzi’s creations. Anyone who has visited Italy, and in particular northern Italy, from which Chef Fedozzi hails, will find himself susceptible to a Proust’s-madeleine type of moment: One bite into the Caprese Fritta, a leaning tower of impossibly fresh breaded mozzarella, oven-dried plum tomatoes, leeks and roasted peppers, may well be enough to throw him into a rapturous reverie, visions of dining al fresco on a closed-off cobblestone street in Bologna dancing through his addled head.
Such is the power of ultra-fresh ingredients arranged in simple combinations — Fedozzi’s M.O. and one that is sadly lacking in many modern American restaurants. In D.C., too, it can be hard to locate quality Italian fare: pasta that’s not drowning in nondescript red sauce, dishes worthy of note beyond their weeks-old and waxen wedges of tomato.
So Domaso’s got its niche, catering to the sort of foodie who doesn’t mind leaving the friendly confines of D.C. proper (not to mention dropping some serious coin) if it means getting a real meal. And it fills that role with aplomb. The Panzanella, a traditional Tuscan bread salad, makes for a perfect starter: light, airy, and coated sparingly with red-wine vinegar and olive oil. As in Italy, the idea is not to gorge patrons with one gargantuan entrée — thereby herding them in and out of the restaurant as quickly as possible — but to prep the palate for a succession of well-apportioned courses.
Next up, after the salad and the antipasto of Caprese Fritta, is a pasta dish: red snapper ravioli sautéed in a white wine sauce with shrimp, clams and mussels. Again, the guiding principle here seems to be that less is more: The sauce is subtle in tone and doled out lightly, allowing for the slight brine of the seafood to stand out. A minor gripe: The snapper, comparatively mild in flavor to begin with and also encased in the pasta, gets lost in the shuffle.
But if the above would seem to constitute a full meal, at Domaso, it’s a mere preamble to the main course: the Tagliata, in this case — a roasted, “herb-rubbed” beef tenderloin served on a bed of verdant arugula and topped with a red onion marmalade. Though the order was for the steak to be cooked to medium, clearer heads prevail in the kitchen, where Fedozzi’s protégés apparently make the executive decision not to let a prime piece of meat be ruined by an ignorant diner. And more power to them. The Tagliata, a medium-rare pink at its core and almost buttery in its consistency, is a revelation — beef of such quality that to befoul it in a complex marinade would be sacrilege.
Given the authenticity of the menu, it is somewhat striking that Domaso’s ambiance largely breaks with tradition. Where Italian restaurants evince an offhand elegance, Domaso is more calculated in its stylish modernism, all vaulted ceilings, sinuous stone walls and marble fireplaces. Ultra-dim lighting sets an unmistakably romantic mood; an open-air kitchen provides patrons with a glimpse into the culinary process; outside, a large outdoor terrace offers views across the river to Theodore Roosevelt Island and Georgetown.
The place is, in a word, gorgeous, as is the rest of the newly opened Hotel Palomar Arlington, on whose fourth floor the restaurant sits. This is a good thing, because the surrounding area is perhaps less than ideal — the Palomar is nestled in a crop of large, drab, imposing buildings, hemmed into a corner of town between those structures to the west and Route 66 to the east.
Thus the onus is on Domaso to provide a space that feels pleasantly secluded — to offer its diners an intimate, sequestered setting — and to make sure its staff operates in a manner in keeping with just such a vibe.
No problems there. The wait staff has clearly been schooled in the proper level of attentiveness — warm and available, but not suffocating — likewise characteristic of Mediterranean boîtes. Servers are quick to recommend personal favorites, taking great pains to pronounce the names of the dishes in proper Italian. Sommelier Christianna Sargant, who staffs the affiliated Domasoteca wine-and-cheese shop on the hotel’s main floor, makes the rounds occasionally, inquiring as to what diners think of the wine they’ve ordered (in some cases stunning them by knowing what they’re drinking even without a bottle in sight).
For intimacy’s sake, it doesn’t hurt that the restaurant isn’t yet doing a bustling dinnertime business — the result, no doubt, of both its recent opening and its tucked-away location. Go now, because once this place catches on, it might be tough to get a table. To invoke an Italian proverb: Chi dorme non piglia pesci. The early bird catches the worm.