By Elana Schor - 02/25/09 07:03 PM EST
Posto is housed in a former auto showroom, with high ceilings and simple, cool lighting that draw the eye to several illuminated images of winding Florentine streets mounted on the walls. The dining room is curiously reminiscent of a cafeteria for supermodels — if catwalkers had a taste for tagliatelle, that is.
New arrivals are steered to the hostess station at the front of the restaurant, where one might expect aloof service to match Posto’s high-minded design. But the staff is unfailingly affable, making diners feel at ease even during half-hour waits in a crowded entryway. Since it first opened in the foodie-rich heart of 14th Street NW, Posto has suffered from that most welcome restaurant curse: instant popularity.
And it’s no wonder that the crowds are flocking to Massimo Fabbri’s menu, which blends accessible Italian comfort food such as creamy polenta and spinach tortellini with side dishes so simple they seem revolutionary in this era of trendy eats.
A plate of roasted beets, red and golden, is topped with an earthy pistachio sauce that subtly elicits the sweetness of the root vegetables. The sautéed spinach makes a surprisingly glamorous garnish out of a mere handful of pine nuts and raisins. Red wine vinegar proves alchemical on an arugula-and-fennel salad, making each bite flip back and forth between the bitterness of the greens and the tang of the dressing.
In fact, the first courses at Posto are enough to win over diners already seduced by other Italian suitors in the city. My companion was dumbstruck before entrees even arrived, musing that “everything I taste is just … wow.”
Even the meat and cheese antipasti, a ubiquitous sight even in Washington wine bars, are elevated at Posto by the presence of bosina, taleggio and La Tur. These soft, unpasteurized milk cheeses have a buttery texture but the complex bouquet of a glass of Pinot Grigio, and they blend well with the spicy coppa and mortadella.
Yet the most potent weapon in chef de cuisine Matteo Venini’s arsenal is his grilled octopus salad, chopped so finely that the mollusk is nearly indistinguishable from the smoky, saffron-infused potatoes and chickpeas that share its plate. A crunchy smattering of greens and citrus dressing transform the octopus, so often botched into rubber by an unskilled hand, into a feather-light delicacy.
Moving into the second course at Posto, however, requires a discerning eye. The brick-oven pizza, wood-fired at the back of the dining room, uses fresh mozzarella and tomatoes so delicate that any toppings tend to overwhelm the pie. Goat cheese-and-roasted peppers is a serviceable pairing, as is a vegetable blend dominated by eggplant, but the classic Margherita is ultimately the best-executed of the bunch.
The same principle of plainness over invention is reversed during the pasta course, where a seemingly simple arrangement of meat ravioli in butter sauce tastes like a neglected sibling next to a cavatelli with olives that hits the palate in a bracing rush of salt and pepper. Any Posto pasta special that features pizzoccheri, a flat and nutty buckwheat fettucini homemade by the chef, is also worth trying.
If wine pairings have not reached the table by the time pastas arrive, you’re missing one of the highlights of the breezy, almost al-fresco dining experience at Posto. Glasses come in both four- and six-ounce pours, encouraging experimentation during each course.
A Sicilian Syrah and Tuscan Cabernet are safe bets, but sommelier Kathy Morgan also offers superlative vintages from outside Italy, including American pinot noirs and Spanish tempranillos. Organizing the wine list by weight as opposed to nation — bottles are divided into light-bodied, medium-bodied and heavy (dubbed “Smoky, Rich and Powerful”) — allows newbies to make informed drink choices.
The menu returns to its early form with second courses that emphasize singular tastes and bold cooking techniques. Baby chicken is nursed to delirious succulence in a coating of lemon and butter, riding to the table on a carpet of black kale as soft as mom’s mashed potatoes. The pan-seared salmon is encrusted in little but a red-wine reduction, served with tiny black-eyed peas that make for an almost geometric complement to the flaky fish.
By the beginning of the second course, Posto’s servers can occasionally disappear from corner tables, but have no fear about asking another table’s server to lend a hand on short notice. It’s not unusual to see busboys helping check a stray coat, or a front-of-house employee chatting with a back table — the staff cohesion is striking.
Equally striking are the desserts, led by an artful tiramisu delivered in spare parts: a tulip of melt-in-your-mouth mascarpone, a tiny beaker of hot chocolate and a wafer-thin cocoa cookie. Homemade gelato and sorbet are also available in a rotating cast of flavors, as is a dark-roasted coffee that serves as a perfect palate cleanser.