Not everyone pays attention to food news like I do. But I’m guessing that most people in the DC area recognize the name Roberto Donna. The chef has attracted a fair amount of press in the local media. On the plus side, he is an award winning chef. His Galileo restaurants featuring regional Italian cuisine were highly praised. On the negative side, he gained notoriety for tax and other issues he had as a restaurant owner. Now it’s back to the plus side as Roberta Donna has recently reemerged as a local chef at Al Dente (previously La Forchetta), while someone else takes the reigns as the restaurant owner.
I have to admit that I only ate at the original Galileo once. I meant to get to Galileo III, but it was gone before I made it there. My curiosity is piqued enough to make dining at La Forchetta a priority. Coincidentally, I have reservations at the same time Tom Sietsema’s review appears in the Washington Post Magazine. The two star review is primarily positive, although nothing jumps out at me as a must have, other than the cichetti starters. The most glowing report is of the pasta with squid, shrimp, and mussels. I mostly avoid squid and mussels, so this isn’t going to be an option for me. I put the review aside, make a mental note that the pasta seems the way to go, while the pizza sounds less reliable.
Al Dente’s location on Foxhall Road is in a neighborhood that most people don’t just happen upon. At least I don’t. So the question for me, is Al Dente worth the trip?
On the plus side is the atmosphere. It has an authentic Italian trattoria feel. The black and white industrial decor is highlighted with lively pops of orange. The overall feel is energetic and fun. The minus? The noise level is fairly painful.We’re eager to try some of the cichetti, including ricotta and herb spread to go with our bread. On the minus side, it’s a good fifteen minute wait until we see the spread. On the plus side, it’s pretty tasty. We also enjoy meatballs La Forchetta style, polenta fries, and fried zucchini flower. This is real neighborhood trattoria kind of food. It’s not fancy, but perfectly enjoyable.
I’ve decided on a pasta for my entree, and the one that appeals to me most is cavatelli with pork sausage, asparagus, cherry tomatoes and spring garlic. I don’t realize until I get home that in Tom Sietsema’s review he says that the dish “registers better on paper the in the mouth.” I like the dish, although it’s a little heavy for a warm night. Like the starters, I find it to be a very solid neighborhood restaurant kind of dish.
My husband and friend both order fettuccini with porcini mushroom. The plus? Really good pasta. The minus? The mushrooms lack flavor, and unfortunately they are a key ingredient in the dish.
My friend has agnolotti with roasted veal, beef, and pork and tossed in butter, sage, and parmigiana reggiano. She says of her dish: “I thought the pasta casing had a good homemade texture to it, and the filling was very flavorful. The dish is very rich because of the sage brown butter sauce, which I love, but feel some buyers remorse AFTER I’ve eaten it. But that’s my problem, not Roberto’s.” Well said, my friend.
We don’t really need dessert at this point, but one of the perils of writing a blog is that dessert is a sacrifice I must make for my readers. We can’t decide what to order. I refuse to take out my phone and look back at the Post review. I really don’t want to hang on Tom Sietsema’s every word. We settle on Le Pizze Dolci, which the waiter comments is his favorite dessert. It’s got marmalade, pineapple and chocolate. What could be bad?
Throughout the meal there have been pluses and minuses to everything. Suffice it to say that this dessert has no pluses. The pizza is completely soggy due to being weighed down by a jar of marmalade. This makes it difficult to eat. It is sickeningly sweet. A total failure for all four of us who are sharing it. We leave more than half of it on the plate. The waiter comes by and asks what we think. We shake our heads no. He simply walks away. We think this is somewhat odd. But when he delivers our check, he tells us that he has removed the dessert charge. We appreciate the gesture. Had I taken the time to consult the Post review, I would have known that tiramisu or zuppa inglese was the way to go. Another plus, I’ve avoided consuming a good deal more calories.
I’ve never been terribly good at math, but now it’s time to decide how I feel about the total experience. On the plus side, it really is nice to know that Roberto Donna is back in DC cooking up some good Italian dishes. I have to subtract a little for the totally unappealing dessert, although it’s not entirely fair since we only tried one dessert and may have missed something far better. So perhaps the real problem is only having one dessert instead of two.
To sum it up, I’m not finding Al Dente necessarily destination worthy. It’s definitely a great neighborhood place, but unfortunately it just doesn’t happen to be in my neighborhood.
Al Dente, 3201 New Mexico Avenue, NW
Washington Post Magazine review