[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Boss-man, my former grad school advisor and mentor/brother/friend was in town for a meeting; we met up for a quick glass of bianco at a serious DC Happy Hour Power spot. He was appropriately dressed for a day of talking to the bureaucrats, I donned a cream and coral jumpsuit that apparently turns me into Meghan Draper, ready for dinner plans with my fellow GMF gals after. He finished my wine, we smoked cigars while he skipped about the world map in the (Penn) Quarter, physically geo-locating the destinations on his next research cruise. We are often a motley little pair. Kisses goodbye with a half of a cigar remaining, off I went to The Red Hen, the hottie spottie in my neighborhoodie (BLOOMINGDALE, YO) to meet the ladies for dinner.
The Red Hen is housed in a building (somewhere on which at sometime, maybe still, perhaps on a spire (?) there was a demarcated hen) that has not been previously occupied for something like 30 years (or so the legend has it). The inside reveals new wood and brick and golden-hues, the kitchen is open and behind the bar that is also largely open, like an invitation to conversations with strangers for the taking (this is a statement of foreshadowing…).
We drank “orange” wine (I believe it to be the Italo-variant of blanc de noir), playfully harassed our waiter, and ate everything: orange and fennel salad with radicchio, braised beef tongue, and the char-grilled hen, piquant with peppers and tomatoes, with a side of escarole with modica (toasted bread crumbs, for those of you unfamiliar with Sicilian slang).
We drank espresso corretto (absinthe, not Sambuca, for there was none to be had–also a recurring theme throughout this article, keep reading…) and dipped spoons into very supple, citrusy panna cotta. Everything was delicious, please go there and eat what is on the menu right now as it is different from what was on it then. I took to the outside to have my Don & Meghan Draper moment with my half-smoked cigar, in my jumpsuit. It was a good day.
Fast-forward a few weeks: I was again at the ‘Hen (it is my neighborhood, yo!), this time perched at the bar, having a glass of sangiovese and penning something that I may tell you all about later. The chirpy conversation involving 3 gents next to me was getting out of hand; it went something like this: “…well, polenta is like semolina, right?” I can never help myself in these situations, but I let it continue, “… at the restaurant we’re gonna mill the wheat ourselves…”
What the hell are they talking about?
I chime in, “Polenta is stone-ground corn. Semolina is stone-ground durum wheat.”
“Yeah, that’s what it is! I don’t know why I got so confused! Are you like a food writer or something?”
Yeah, something like that. We all get to talking: the scruffy, confused kid to my left is the pizzaiolo at Etto, which at that moment was not yet open. The topic immediately turned to the philosophy of sourdough; we both have thoughts, and his do not immediately inspire confidence. At this point, he is 0/2, but he is so sweetly engaging me in more conversation that I suspend disbelief, and it does slowly become apparent that he may know a thing or two about a thing or two, despite his prior evocations. Ahem. I told him I would stop by.
Etto (as in, “a little bit” of something, it denotes a mass of about 100 grams) is in Logan Circle, right across from Le Diplomate. It could not be further across the street, in every sense. I mean, Etto is Italian, and Italian is like, the opposite of French, in like, every way.
I went with a gaggle of lovies. We secured a table in the corner window; the space is airy and rustic with tile and wood, modern and elegant in its own lovely right (there is a large hand-crank grain mill standing towards the back of the restaurant; maybe they will grind it themselves, whatever it might be). The kitchen and the wood-fired oven are open behind a long wrap-around bar, antipasti and fresh bread are plated there, provoking your appetite.
Presented atop the bar is what the gig is here: vegetable and meat antipasti, fresh bread and pizza. Yes, please and thank you, finally, really delicious pizza in the GodSaveTheDistrict. The doughs are naturally leavened: crusty, tender and just ever-so-slightly tangy, he does clearly know what he’s doing. The wine list is beautifully curated from all around the Italian peninsula, and of a manageable size, to boot. We ordered two bottles of a delicious Sicilian red, every vegetable side dish on the menu and some meat, too, and three different pizzas. We were so happy. Then came the café corretto, ‘cause that’s how we roll, but again, there was no Sambuca, so we drank some really fabulous Amaro instead (twist my arm).
Bring a gaggle of lovies when you go. This is communal food at its best. Tell the scruffy-faced pizzaiolo that I sent you, and then lovingly quiz him on the name and origin of every stone-ground grain which you may imagine yourself to know.
Well, there they are, two open-aired Italian kitchens in the District, turning out rustic and lovingly-handled comestibles without show-up-manship, showing up Italian food like Italian food really is. Good job, fellas, but really, do a sorella a favor and put a bottle of Sambuca (Anisette? Is that better?!) on the shelf and seal the damn deal, will ya?