Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Aperto Food Review

House-made Laganelle at Aperto

People often ask me, "What's your favorite cuisine?" As a critic, it's my job to try everything; but press me for an answer, and I'd choose Italian over all the rest. Not any Italian mind you, but authentic, rustic staples like pasta, pizza and seafood stew with lots (and lots) of bread. It's what I grew up on (Anna Maria's, Famous Luigi's, Roma) and it's where I still choose to mark special milestones and occasions. Trouble is, there aren't many places around that stand up to my memories. Thankfully, I've found a new one, with a familiar face and distinguished local resume. Luigi Diotaiuti opened Aperto a year and a half ago, a few blocks away from his famed Al Tiramisu. I finally stopped by for my first dinner, and fell instantly in love.

Don't let its humble exterior fool you, Aperto (which means "open") is the kind of place you may never want to leave. Credit charming Luigi and his polished/professional staff for creating a warm and inviting atmosphere. The music is soft, with delicate lighting and surprisingly ample room between tables. Unless the party next to you is on their third bottle of wine, odds are you can have an intimate conversation without ever being interrupted. Luigi's welcomes are legendary... hugs and kisses aplenty, each one more genuine and heartfelt than the next. If there's a more enthusiastic/good-natured host in all of DC, I've yet to meet him or her.

My server was Tony, who was both charming and professional. Not only did he take the time to introduce himself by name (something I miss in higher end eateries) he also showcased a tray of fresh fish specials with old school panache. Try finding that at Outback Steakhouse (or anywhere else for that matter.) Plates were delivered and taken away with ninja-like stealth, and always with a smile. Service = A+.

Italian Bread... to die for

You can't have an Italian meal without bread, and Aperto's almost brought tears to my eyes. It was identical to the best I'd ever had (at Anna Maria's, back in the 70s) crusty on the outside, with pillowy soft flesh, that literally tears apart like newspaper. It's served with tapenade instead of butter or olive oil, but it makes no difference: This bread is literally entree-worthy, all by its lonesome. A++.


Next up, pasta. A bowl of house-made Laganelle with a hearty, robust lamb ragu ($27.) The presentation is colorful and elegant, and the generous amount of ragu packs so much flavor, you might swear you've moved to Basilicata, Southern Italy. Not the least bit salty either... just clean, simple ingredients expertly prepared.

Tiramisu Classico

Minutes later, I went to work on Chef Luigi's Cacciucco, a seafood stew jam-packed with jumbo shrimp, mussels, tender scallops and a mix of fresh fish (calamari, salmon) surrounded by the zestiest broth you ever dreamed of. The broth alone is worth $29, but it's impossible to take a sip without a chunky bite of one fish or another. It's a deceptively filling dish, that takes a while to finish. Fear not, as it seems to stay warm forever, and tastes different each and every bite.

Filling as it was, you simply can't leave without dessert. Choices are plentiful (nine, if I recall correctly) and I came this close to ordering the Honey Lavender Panna cotta, but how could anyone say no to Luigi's signature Tiramisu Classico ($12) and a double espresso? It looks gorgeous, but it's the impossibly soft texture that separates this from any other tiramisu I've ever had. Coffee and cocoa are strong flavors, but there's a delicacy to this dessert that escapes words.

As I finish this review, I can't help but marvel at how simple the food appears to be. Make no mistake: There are lots of bold flavors, but none of them are overpowering (even in a relatively busy stew.) To find such good food with an abundance of friendliness and superb service is almost disconcerting, since I can't afford to visit once or twice a week... even though I would love to. At least I found a place to celebrate my aforementioned special occasions. Feel free to follow my lead.