New Restaurant Features N. Italian Cuisine
Alba Osteria, the new Italian restaurant from owner Hakan Ilhan and executive chef Roberto Donna of Al Dente opened Dec. 30 in the Mount Vernon Triangle area of Northwest D.C. Donna is joined in the kitchen by chef de cuisine Amy Brandwein, formerly of Casa Nonna, whom he last worked with at his Galileo restaurant downtown. Brandwein will run the kitchen at Alba, while Donna spends lunch at Alba and dinner at Al Dente, which is near American University.
Atlanta’s Norris Design designed the 5,500-square-foot space, which includes a private dining room that can seat 22 guests. The main dining room is loosely organized into sections, making the space intimate and inviting. The interior is industrial, yet cozy.
Industrial, cozy interior
Alba’s interior is a study in contrasts with white Carrara marble with rough, broken edges, dark tile floors and tables, steel and glass with pops of orange. Lighting is a mix of turn-of-the-century industrial luminaires, stage lighting and chic black chandeliers.
Inside the 226-seat restaurant, which will have a 63-seat outdoor patio in warmer months, the massive four-sided bar is front and center with rooms encircling it for more intimate meals.The bar has a boutique selection of Italian and local wines, plus four wines on tap and 20 beers on draft. Wines range from $22-$200 by the bottle and $7-$25 by the glass.
We visited the restaurant, which features the cuisine from the Piedmonete region of northern Italy — Donna’s homeland — during last Tuesday’s snow storm. While only four tables were seated in the dining room, the bar was packed and people continued to come in out of the snow. That’s because during the 4-7 p.m.happy hour Monday-Friday, draft beers and fusion shot specials are $4, select wines by the glass and featured cocktails are $5, Mortadella (Italian sausage) is complimentary, bar bites are $5 and pizza half-priced.
The kitchen is open with an exhibition salumi and formaggi counter complete with a Ferrari red Berkel slicer to cut the selections of hanging meats. There is also a colorful pizza bar, where a cocktail can be enjoyed while watching the glowing Ferrara wood-fired oven imported from Naples produce Neapolitan pizzas. The pizza oven, which weighs 8,000 pounds, is finished with red and orange handmade Italian glass mosaic tile. Dividing the bar and dining rooms are reclaimed factory window frames, with refurbished seeded glass. The windows and the wood paneling in the private dining room were removed from a 100-year-old demolished Crayola factory in Ohio.
Pizzas and starters
The menu at Alba Osteria offers a selection of salumi and formaggi, antipasti, small and large portions of house-made pastas and 13 varieties of Neapolitan pizza that range from $8.95-$13.95 or you can design your own.
During our visit, the service was excellent and our server, Antonio, was very knowledgeable of the menu. He made recommendations for all the courses, recommending two of the hot or cold appetizers or soups and an entree or pizza per person. Antonio answered all our questions about the dishes — don’t expect to find spaghetti and meatballs or meat lasagna on this menu — and even pronounced them with an Italian accent. Even Chef Donna checked on us and was in the dining room often.
Appetizers range from $6-$9 each. Cold appetizers include herb poached rabbit, veal carpaccio and veal tongue, while the hot appetizers include cauliflower with cardoons, kabocha squash, garlic, cipollini onion and anchovy sauce; fritters with eggplant, potato and cauliflower; sautéed chicken livers in marsala wine with porcini mushrooms and polenta; house made winter sausage with potato puree and fonduta; and fried pig’s feet with a fruit mostarda, salsa verde and pickled vegetables.
Dinner started with a selection of bread including hard breadsticks, ciabotta, multigrain rolls and what Donna called mother-in-law tongue — a long, flat, hard cracker — served with a tasty spread. For our appetizers, we chose the quattro stagioni pizza ($13.95) with tomato, mozzarella, basil, oregano, black olives, mushrooms, artichokes and ham to share. We also shared the peperoni all’astigiana ($7) — roasted peppers with fontina cheese and ham — and the crostini piemontesi ($7) — three crostinis, one with gorgonzola dolce and sweet onion, another with ricotta and hazelnut and the final with sausage and stracchino cheese.
There are six house made pastas on the menu ranging from $7-$9 for the small portions or $17-$19 for the large. Selections include agnolotti al brasato, a ravioli with braised beef, beef jus, bone marrow and parmigiano reggiano; tajarin, an egg noodle made with 42 egg yolks covered in a veal ragu; cannelloni alla barbaroux with veal, beef, bescamella and parmigiano reggiano; and trofie alla finanziera with chestnut trofie and finanzieria sauce. Other entrees ($18-$19) include beef tenderloin with fontina cheese, porcini mushrooms, a marsala sauce and potato soubric; veal with prosciutto, chiodini and potato cream, and rabbit with fennel pollen, pancetta, a spinach crepe, polenta and raschera cheese. There are also daily fish specials on a separate menu.
During our snowy visit, it was obvious that the new restaurant and staff are still working out the kinks. We were given the wrong daily fish specials, from which my guest had ordered the branzino. But Donna himself came out to apologize for the confusion and recommended the la trota ($12), a grilled rainbow trout served over spinach with raisins and garlic and topped with a rosemary sage butter. I ordered the gnocchi verdi — a spinach and potato gnocchi with sausage ragu. However, when my meal arrived it was a plain potato gnocchi in the sausage ragu ($19). Our waiter explained that the green gnocchi wasn’t popular and was replaced on the menu with the plain. He also apologized that our menu hadn’t been updated. However, we were both happy with our dishes that were very tasty.
The dessert menu includes six selections ($9 each), three house made gelatos ($3.95/scoop) and three house made sorbets ($3.95/scoop). The frozen treats come in vanilla, chocolate, hazelnut, passion fruit, green apple and pear. For dessert we chose the polenta bianca, a snowy white polenta with crunchy caramel topping (sort of like on a creme brulee) and chocolate gelato (I substituted the hazelnut); and the torta gianduja, a hazelnut gianduja cake with apricot marmellata and melted Verona chocolate. Both were yummy and the perfect way to end our meal.
Alba Osteria is located at 425 I St. NW, the part of the block north of Massachusetts Avenue. It is open Monday-Thursday from 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Friday from 11 a.m.-midnight, Saturday from 10:30 a.m.-midnight, and Sunday from 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
Editor-in-Chief Mark Heckathorn is a journalist, movie buff and foodie. He oversees DC on Heels editorial operations as well as strategic planning and staff development. Reach him with story ideas or suggestions at dcoheditor (at) gmail (dot) com.