Critics’ choice: A step up from everyday Italian
All-Purpose Washington, D.C.
Welcome to “the neighborhood restaurant of your dreams,” said Tom Sietsema in The Washington Post. Inspired by the Italian-American joints that chef and co-owner Mike Friedman remembers from his New Jersey childhood, this new standout in D.C.’s Shaw section bull’seyes “that happy spot between a spaghetti house and a formal ristorante.” Among the antipasti, a delicate ring of chilled mussels, octopus, squid, and rockfish crudo could hold its own on the city’s finest contemporary American menus, while even an old-school Italian salad features both iceberg lettuce and “best-in-class” salumi. Familiar dishes like salt-cod fritters, beef short ribs, and pizza turn out to be anything but standard. Friedman’s pizza is “one of Washington’s most original pies,” perhaps because there’s malt powder in the dough that caramelizes as the crust bakes into “a chewy crisp pillow.” The best pizza is the Duke #7, topped with a spicy salami spread and giardiniera. Just save room for the ricotta cheesecake, served with basil syrup and “grappa-swollen” blackberries. 1250 9th St. NW, (202) 849-6174
San Fermo Seattle
“Opening a restaurant is never easy,” but the creators of San Fermo deserve extra credit, said Providence Cicero in The Seattle Times. This “inviting, unpretentious” restaurant in Ballard occupies twin pioneer-era houses that are believed to be Seattle’s oldest intact residential properties, and the journey from concept to opening took two years. Whitewashed plank walls, mismatched china, fresh flowers, and cloth napkins contribute to a casually festive atmosphere that “does these old houses proud,” and chef Sam West’s simple, seasonal Italian fare includes plenty of highlights. The pasta dishes are “especially appealing,” including house-made saffron spaghetti served in a Bolognese sauce elevated by hints of rosemary and fennel. The elegant rabbit cacciatore is “flawlessly executed,” and “for something bolder,” there’s a spicy cornmeal-crusted soft-shell crab. Here and there, an undercooked vegetable or slightly dry risotto indicates that the kitchen can still grow. For now, though, San Fermo looks like a contender in a neighborhood with no shortage of Italian restaurants. It’s “pitched just right for a spontaneous, casual night out.”5341 Ballard Ave. NW, (206) 342-1530
Il Porcellino Chicago
“I don’t know if Il Porcellino is the least expensive serious restaurant in Chicago’s River North, but it sure feels like it,” said Phil Vettel in the Chicago Tribune. In a neighborhood where parking costs $15, finding house-made pastas at the same price point is a treat, especially when the wine, too, is “giddily affordable.” A perfect dinner here begins with the $5 Tuscan cheese bread, which “eats like a stealth pizza.” Among those affordable pasta plates is a “feather-light” gnocchi Bolognese that “might be the best dish on the menu.” But all the pastas are good, and the brick-chicken Vesuvio is “a wellseasoned classic”; my only complaint is that it can be slightly overcooked. Sinatra tunes and Motown play in the background, and for those feeling especially nostalgic, there’s a throwback corner booth in back. On your way out, find the namesake statue of a small pig and give the snout a rub. The ritual supposedly brings luck, all of which’ll be yours. “It doesn’t look as if this restaurant needs any.”59 W. Hubbard St., (312) 595-0800