By Alexander Bolton - 03/08/12 12:40 AM EST
Veteran of DC’s Italian scene opens his dream restaurant in Logan Circle.
Unlike many of the new arrivals to the bustling restaurant scene along nearby 14th Street NW, Tortino does not represent the latest in cuisine chic.
The atmosphere is cozy, the service attentive, the prices reasonable and the upscale Italian food comforting. Some dishes even sparkle.
Chef Noé Canales, a veteran of several of Washington’s best-known Italian restaurants, opened Tortino in November on 11th Street NW between M and N, a culinary dead zone west of the convention center.
His story is a real-life example of the American Dream that lawmakers love to deploy in campaign rhetoric. He came to the United States from El Salvador 22 years ago at the age of 18 and took a job as a dishwasher at Bice. He soon moved up to preparing salads and a few years later moved to Café Milano to work under Chef Domenico Cornacchia.
Canales then worked for seven years at Al Tiramisu in Dupont Circle before moving to the posh Ristorante Tosca downtown.
“I have heard from friends, ‘How do you open an Italian restaurant when you’re from El Salvador?’ ” he said. “I have 22 years of experience and I believe in myself.”
His course was set by a pilgrimage to Italy in 1991, when he tasted a potato soup served with an over-easy egg and white truffle.
He envisioned Tortino as a neighborhood spot, and it has that vibe. Thick carpeting, burnt sienna and mustard walls and soft recessed lighting give the 60-seat dining rooms an intimate air and seem to soak up noise.
Canales saw a void along the 11th Street corridor where the few options include Veranda, a Greek-Italian hybrid a few blocks to the north, and El Rinconcito Cafe, a value-priced Salvadoran joint to the south.
Tortino’s atmosphere provides a marked contrast to the hard surfaces and din of Posto, the nearest pure-Italian competitor just north of 14th and P streets, where Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta is a regular.
One of my companions observed that Tortino would feel at home in exurban Maryland, making it a nice change of pace from the studied hipness of Logan Circle’s popular hangouts.
The restaurant is half submerged below street level in the bottom floor of a townhouse, allowing diners a glimpse of the streetscape through glass entryways.
The toothsome heartiness of many of the appetizers and entrées tasted welcoming on the cold March evening when I visited.
The savory sweetness of porcini and black truffle sauce enhance the natural sweetness of pan-roasted scallops served over crunchy yellow corn.
The chestnut soup has a rustic grittiness and faint woodsy taste enhanced by redolent slices of lamb sausage. It was salted sparingly, allowing the delicate flavor of the chestnuts to shine.
The best appetizer, however, was a special beet salad that regulars can only hope will make encore appearances. It matched fresh red and yellow beets with shaved fennel and alluring truffle-drizzled cheese.
For the entrees, the butternut squash ravioli is the star. Its brown butter raisin sauce, which the restaurant proudly displays on its website, makes the dish. It’s a balanced mix of sweet and savory, with thin slices of garlic serving as ballast to the raisins’ flavor bursts. Slivers of sage round it out perfectly.
Veal cheeks served over roasted garlic mashed potatoes also deserve praise. The slices of meat are generous and succulent with a pleasing balance of fat and meat. The brown sauce, “something that grandma would make,” as one of my companions commented, added to Tortino’s homey feel.
The risotto is a good choice for hungry patrons. Its creaminess might verge on the extreme if not kept in check by pleasantly crunchy asparagus. Smoked mozzarella suffuses the overall flavor but does not overwhelm slices of mild duck sausage.
Canales says the linguine with seafood, white wine and cherry tomato sauce is his favorite. The sliced cherry tomatoes kept their vibrancy, but the flavors of the tomato sauce, shrimp and mussels tasted muted.
Desserts include a rich chocolate-and-mousse layered cake drizzled with crème anglaise and a delicious fruit panna cotta served with marinated berries, a textured wafer and a sprig of mint.
Chardonnay and pinot noire grappa are on the menu for diners who enjoy a bracing digestif.
The wine list offers a nice selection from around the old country, ranging from Tuscan Chianti to Barbaresco and Barolo from Piedmont to a smooth, moderately priced blended Montefalco from Umbria.
Canales says business is picking up since Tortino’s grand opening on New Year’s Eve as more people hear of it.
He will begin serving brunch on Saturdays and Sundays, giving locals a convenient and classy destination to nurse hangovers or host parents and friends from out of town.