By Elana Schor - 07/27/07 05:04 PM EDT
Ask anyone — even celebrity chefs like Mario Batali and Giada de Laurentiis—about the secret to good Italian food, and they’ll tell you: Keep it simple. Combine fresh ingredients, and let flavor do the work.
At Locanda, a new saffron-tinted oasis in Eastern Market, simplicity is a mantra. Owner Aykan Demiroglu describes its ethos as “Meditalian,” a hybrid of Mediterranean cuisines. But the kitchen’s unadorned presentation and respect for the two-hour dinner mark Locanda as the Italian bistro that Capitol Hill didn’t know it needed.
Designed by Demiroglu and executive chef Brian Barszcz, formerly of Bistro Bis and Tallula, the menu is structured in five ascending courses. Begin with the “piattini,” small plates that are best ordered tapas-style, with several for a table to share.
Most stunning of all is a trio of the toast points that Italians call crostini, topped with a wasabi-hued puree of fava beans and fresh mint that manages to make legumes float onto your palate. The zucchini blossoms with warm tomato sauce also work magic, coated in a batter that makes you forget the dish is deep-fried.
The marinated olives, served warm in a terra cotta dish, offer irresistible bang for your buck, particularly when paired with a glass of red from the ample wine list. Offerings are Italian-only (no shiraz or malbec), but surprises abound, from a Tuscan sangiovese that rides a rollercoaster of spicy notes to a unique vintage dubbed “tears of Christ.”
After the first course, a sextet of delightful antipasto plates await — but by this time, you may be noticing the one factor that prevents Locanda from reaching Italian-foodie heaven. The walls, painted the burnt orange of an Indian swami, have no hangings to absorb the laughter and gossip of a packed house, making noise levels deafening by 7 p.m. The only area of repose is a couple of informal tables next to the bar area, where conversation is easier.
Barszcz changes up elements of the antipasto depending on the availability of local ingredients, but each mingle no more than three bold components.
The buffalo mozzarella, imported from Italy, keeps its salty flavor to a whisper, allowing the sweetness of heirloom
tomatoes and the snap of basil oil to elevate what could have been a run-of-the-mill caprese salad. Calamari fritti is shockingly fresh, paired with a rich anchovy aioli and a “salsa verde,” which is actually emerald-green arugula pesto.
Competing for attention with those stunners are charcuterie and cheese plates, which entered the culinary vogue when Batali became TV’s Italian chef of choice. Served on a cutting board, the cheeses and meats look appealing next to the Zen-like placemats but offer little that cannot be savored at a good Italian deli.
Salads, the third course, arrive large enough that one can satisfy two or three diners. Curls of wild arugula stand out, intertwined with sheets of fresh Parmesan and topped by tangy lemon oil. The baby romaine is also excellent, approximating a Caesar with anchovies and hard-cooked egg.
Also in keeping with the new wave of politically aware haute cuisine, Barszcz uses entirely local and organic produce as well as humanely raised meat and fish. Locanda’s owners plan to sign on as a sponsor of the nonprofit group Humane Farm Animal Care.
The entrees are divided into “primi” and “secondi,” an homage to the local Italian custom of polishing off a pasta course before ordering meat and fish. The portions, while a far cry from Buca di Beppo in Dupont Circle, unfortunately make it difficult for most diners to take on two main plates individually, so sharing is advisable.
No low points can be found in the series of pastas, led by a stellar frutti di mare that features rings of squid pasta embraced by mussels, shrimp and cockles, or tiny and sweet clams. The parsley-and-oil sauce in this dish is a revelation in itself, a veritable mascot for Locanda’s aura of confident simplicity.
Rigatoni with eggplant even appears authentically Italian, the pasta’s interior ring collapsed by the fresh dough and the tomato almost free of oil, floating atop dark nuggets of olives. Each day brings different ravioli, made in-house, that should not be missed; the goat cheese-and-leek variety wears its brown butter sauce like a decadent piece of lingerie.
For a second course, try the red snapper in broth with cockles, a choice cut of fish with salty-bitter flavors expertly complemented by a tangle of dandelion greens. The chicken al mattone with asparagus, flattened into a clever shape by the brick under which it cooks, is equally delectable.
Finally, a friendly warning issued Italian-style: Leave room for dessert, or else. Barszcz has the presence of mind to share his kitchen with an equally steady hand, Liliana Dumas. The former proprietress of legendary boîte Trattoria Liliana lends her mama’s-kitchen credibility to special desserts, aperitivo cookies and other dishes whenever her fancy strikes — and the result is unfailingly fabulous.
The Meyer lemon panna cotta, an Italian pudding that resembles a crème brulee on a weight-loss program, dances onto your tongue, partnered with fresh berries, and the pecorino fritters with honey are an unpredictably rich finale. But Dumas’s desserts rule the roost, especially a blackberry-raspberry tart covered in a crust so light and lemony that my companion poked it to make sure it was made of flour.
Locanda arrives in the Capitol’s neighborhood in the nick of time. If you cannot hear yourself talk in its clamorous dining room, that’s OK: Its dishes can leave you speechless.
What you’ll love: Everything about Locanda’s dishes, from the fragrant tomato sauces to the feather-light desserts to the refreshing sight of small plates priced at less than $9. The service is friendly and knowledgeable.
What you won’t like: The noise. The restaurant’s walls are bare, a sonic curse during the bustling dinner hour. Don’t be surprised to find yourself hollering at your companion, and drop a hint to your server that soundproof panels might do the trick.
It’s perfect for fans of _______: Sonoma, the Hill’s go-to wine bar and small-plate paradise. Locanda has a similar modern and trendy ambiance, even tastier cheese and meat tasting plates, and an equally stellar wine list.
Take your _______: Best friend from work (or office crush). Locanda is a short walk from the Capitol, perfect to head to after the last votes of the day.
Locanda, 633 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, 202-547-0002. Open Tue.-Sat., 6-10 p.m. Brunch service planned to begin in August. Reservations recommended. Appetizers $3 to $11, entrees $11 to $25.