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My Uber driver recognizes the restaurant’s address before it even opens. “RPM Italian, is it really here?” he asks. Next, he’s pounding the steering wheel shouting, “I’ve been counting down to this one. That Giuliana, she’s on TV!”
He’s talking about Giuliana Rancic of E! News and Fashion Police fame and her husband, Bill Rancic, the entrepreneur who won the first season of The Apprentice. And now, the Rancics are partners in the sprawling Italian restaurant with a chic aesthetic opening today in Mount Vernon Square.
“It was important for them, and it’s important for us, that this is not a celebrity restaurant. This is a great restaurant that celebrities are partners in,” says Jerrod Melman, who co-owns the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant along with siblings R.J. Melman and Molly Melman as well as chef Doug Psaltis. The Melmans say the Rancics contribute to design, menu planning, staffing, and schmoozing with guests.
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The flagship (and only other) RPM Italian location is in Chicago. The group selected the District for the second location because Giuliana Rancic is from the area, and her parents still call Bethesda home, according to Jerrod Melman. R.J. Melman adds that Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You has been in the D.C. area for 17 years, with 10 concepts including Summer House Santa Monica and Stella Barra Pizzeria in North Bethesda’s Pike & Rose development.
Those who have visited the Windy City original will recognize the sleek black and white design spread throughout the 12-seat bar, 150-seat main dining room, and 80-seat private dining room. “We think there’s a lot of lighting. We want to make it so people look tan,” Jerrod Melman says. A patio, where you can get a real tan, is also in the works.
Patrons may also recognize much of the menu, which is locally looked after by Executive Chef Gabe Thompson. He comes from New York’s L’Artusi, dell’Anima, and Anfora. Dinner spans hot and cold antipasti, raw bar platters, mini-pizzas, 10 house-made pastas, steaks and chops, classics like eggplant Parmesan, and “simply prepared seafood.” A greater emphasis on the ocean is a notable departure from Chicago. Psaltis names the Atlantic cod with Mahogany clams, corn, and blue crab as one dish that “screams East Coast.”
Despite the fact that four-ounce portions of pasta ($14 to $29) are meant to be a part of the progression of a meal instead of the main course, Psaltis estimates they’ll go through 250 pounds of pasta a night in D.C. “One thousand portions divided by four, that’s a lot of flour and eggs,” he says. The chefs’ top recommendations include Mama DePandi’s pomodoro (the dish follows Giuliana Rancic’s mother’s recipe) and the spicy king crab over squid ink spaghetti.
Other menu highlights include the mammoth bistecca Fiorentina, which comes from a butcher shop in the Bronx and gets dry-aged for 20 days, and the 600-day aged prosciutto from Italy that was the main attraction at the grand opening party Monday.
Bartender Julian Cox oversees the cocktail program, which stars Italian ingredients such as various amari and Prosecco, and Richard Hanauer curates the wine list of more than 100 bottles, primarily domestic and Italian. The restaurant will open with dinner Mondays through Saturdays with plans to serve lunch in the future.
The Melman brothers say they know they’ll attract the business crowd, given the law firm upstairs, but they hope to be a lot of things to a lot of people. “When we opened our first restaurant going back eight years, we wanted it to be ‘scene-y,’ but we realized later on that we never wanted to create a place that was exclusive,” Jerrod Melman says.
RPM Italian, 601 Massachusetts Ave. NW; (202) 204-4480; rpmrestaurants.com/rpmitalian/dc