Michael Babin and Matt Adler
Michael Babin and Matt Adler Credit: Neighborhood Restaurant Group

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When Matt Adler talks about the classic red sauce Italian restaurant he’s opening on Capitol Hill, he doesn’t use any of the cliché words restaurateurs rely on today to convey that they’ve gussied up a cuisine. Caruso’s Grocery won’t be an “interpretation” of Italian American cuisine, nor will it be “elevated,” or his “modern take on it.” He’s just striving to serve the best possible versions of rigatoni alla vodka, five-cheese ravioli, and chicken parmigiana. Think of these welcoming joints as temples to tomato sauce and cheese-coated comfort food where leftovers are a given. 

Adler, a chef who has locally led kitchens at Osteria Morini and Alta Strada, is partnering with Neighborhood Restaurant Group to open the restaurant adjacent to The Roost at 1401 Pennsylvania Ave. SE in early 2020. The Roost is the restaurant group’s forthcoming multi-concept locale, which so far will include a beer bar from Greg Engert, a taco stall and outpost of Red Apron Butcher from Nate Anda, and a cocktail bar from Nick Farrell. Caruso’s Grocery will have a separate entrance.

NRG Founder Michael Babin brought Adler on as a consultant for The Roost as a whole and the pair got to talking. “He was like, ‘I want to do a red sauce joint like I used to eat at when I was a kid,’” Adler recounts. “I was like, ‘My dad had that restaurant!’ I’ve always wanted to do this.” Just hours after this conversation, Adler drafted a menu and sent it to Babin, who was immediately on board. 

When Adler was 15 years old, his father opened Scoozi in Upstate New York. He worked there toward the end of high school and for a full year before he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America. “It was an Italian American restaurant with all the parms, a big selection of pastas where you could add grilled chicken or shrimp meatballs, manicotti, and garlic bread,” he says. “For me the food is comforting, homey food. It’s not challenging in any way. It’s just delicious.”

While Adler is a partner and not the day-to-day executive chef of the 65-seat restaurant, he shares that the plan is to make all of the pastas in house and source top quality ingredients. “We’re making the best version of the dish that we can,” he explains. The food will be served alongside “affordable, delicious” wines. “We’d love to try and come in around under $45 a bottle. We don’t want you to leave feeling like it was a special occasion.” There will also be beer and Farrell will draw up a cocktail menu that could include house-made limoncello to serve guests gratis after a heavy meal.

Caruso’s Grocery borrows its name from the the Italian market Babin’s grandmother operated in Louisiana. “He has a deep passion for this too,” Adler says. “We had this connection over this kind of food, which is pretty special.”

To prepare for the opening, Adler and Babin visited New York in June and frequented restaurants like Mario’s in the Bronx, which just celebrated its 100th year in business. They also had a meal at Bamonte’s in Brooklyn, which is even older. “We loved the service, ambiance, and experience,” Adler says. “The servers make you feel like home.”

So what does Adler’s father think of his son’s latest venture?

“He thinks it’s funny, he’s happy for me,” Adler says. “I’ve done so much in between then and now to get out of that small town, small restaurant thing.” As the pair were perusing old photos that could potentially hang in Caruso’s Grocery, Adler’s father said his son is really coming full circle. 

Caruso’s Grocery, 1401 Pennsylvania Ave. SE