Giving It the Boot: Sergio is Italian in name only. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

The names of the Washington’s best Italian restaurants roll off your tongue like extra-virgin olive oil: Tosca, Obelisk, Siroc, 2Amys, Sergio. OK, maybe you, like me, choked a little on that last name, which has been promoted to the uppermost levels of Italian gastronomy in the area by the users of Yelp.com, “the fun and easy way to find, review and talk about what’s great—and not so great, in your area.”

Check out some of these comments about the humble Silver Spring establishment on the site:

• As a Silver Spring local, i feel like this place should be among the top places to eat in the DC area. Its true, the atmosphere is a bit lacking but the food really does make up for it. It is amazingly delicious and delectable and year after year, it does not disappoint. I look forward to visiting this great restaurant. Maybe because it is so hidden away, its still a true gem.

• Sergios is so good I hesitate to review it on Yelp….The crowd is a good mixture of longterm devoted local fans and random walk ins from the hotel. They never advertise and they never seem to make anyone’s “Best Of” list. I think it’s because the regulars don’t brag about it for fear of it being overrun.

• While this place can only be described as traditional Italian food, it’s too basic of a phrase to actually describe the flavors and meal itself.

• It’s a great, small family-owned business. The owner is from Italy, goes back every year, and brings back new inspiration! The menu changes constantly and the chef is great with improvising if there is something in particular you like….It’s probably the best italian food I’ve had in that area.. and better than many of the overpriced italian restaurants in dc.

There’s not a single negative Yelp review of Sergio. The restaurant inside the Hilton on Colesville Road averages 4.5 stars based on 14 critiques. To the typical Washington-area Web surfer looking for a good Italian restaurant, Sergio would land at the top of the list. Its rating is better than those for Tosca, Siroc, Bibiana, 2Amys, and many other favorites of the culinary elite. It shares the same rating as Obelisk, Peter Pastan’s Dupont Circle operation that pampers you with precise, pristinely sourced bites of rustic Italian antipasti before moving you into the main section of the meal.

One recent Friday night, I invited a well-known Italian chef, with more than 20 years experience in the kitchen, to join me at Sergio Ristorante Italiano to assess the restaurant’s authenticity—or at least its food’s resemblance to regional Italian cooking. I granted the chef anonymity in return for his honest opinions. I’ll call him Claudio for the sake of this story.

Not long after we were ushered to our seats in the subterranean eatery, Claudio declared his dissatisfaction: Its name notwithstanding, Sergio doesn’t feel Italian, he said. Claudio started talking about the smells and the music and the general aura of small family-owned restaurants back in Italy; Sergio is aiming for that kind of easy, carefree vibe, but it falls short with its dated, nondescript decor and cheerless staff. Claudio said he didn’t see anyone smile during our visit.

Things didn’t get much better when we started reviewing the plastic-covered menus. They were written in both Italian and English or, as Claudio noted, the dishes were Italian “by name but not by execution.”

We started with the mozzarella in corrozza, which Claudio told me is a street food readily available in Naples and Apulia. A round of fresh mozzarella is typically concealed between slices of a good, hearty Italian loaf. The concoction is then dipped in milk and eggs and fried. An anchovy fillet, or half of one, is usually sandwiched inside the bite. It should be crunchy, airy, buttery, and pungent all at once. The version at Sergio was as soft as a grilled cheese sandwich on Wonder bread, and it tasted mostly of fryer oil, although we both liked the accompanying creamy anchovy sauce for dipping.

For our mains, we were thwarted on our first requests. Sergio had exhausted most of its house-made pastas, including the fettuccine and tonnarelli. We settled for Sergio’s ragù served on penne (instead of the advertised fettuccine), as well as its manicotti ai spinaci, in which house-made manicotti is stuffed with spinach and ricotta.

The manicotti was so overcooked that it had the texture of cream cheese. Even more troubling to Claudio, the pasta was topped with a thin layer of provolone cheese, which has all the authenticity of Olive Garden. The penne was likewise overcooked, although it was properly salted and flavorful; the ragù itself was sparsely applied and watery, as if the cooks hadn’t drained the pasta completely. For Claudio, the dish’s main fault was its inability to tie its flavors together into a coherent whole.

As we sat there picking at our plates, we started talking about Sergio’s reputation among diners and why they’re so passionate about the place. Claudio thought Sergio’s modest prices factored into diners’ assessments. He also noted how most of the people who commented on Sergio are local to Silver Spring and perhaps longtime fans. The implication was that they’re naturally biased.

As we finally headed to our cars, I had to ask Claudio one final question: Was there anything authentic about our meals? He turned to me and said, “There was nothing Italian about our meals.”

Whoop, There It Is

If you believe the New York Times the treat most likely to supplant the cupcake in our hearts and mouths is the whoopie pie. That’s right, the whoopie pie, that hamburger-shaped cake split in half and traditionally filled with a hydrogenated spread of Crisco and Marshmallow Fluff.

Maybe that doesn’t sound so appetizing to those outside of New England. But I tell you what, after eating the whoopie pie at Something Sweet, Bo Blair’s decadent little shop across from 2Amys on Macomb Street NW, I’m ready to swear allegiance to that oversized Down East dessert sandwich. Or is it more Pennsylvania Dutch, given that the Amish could be ultimately responsible for unleashing this sugary indulgence into the world?

Regardless, Blair’s wife, baker Meghan Blair, reaches high and low for her interpretation of the whoopie pie. The cake batter is prepared with dark cocoa powder, while the filling falls back on tradition, incorporating a little Fluff into the recipe. The finished product is a big, happy mouthful of moist chocolate cake, pleasingly firm to the bite, balanced with sweet filling that has the telltale, almost rubbery, texture of marshmallows.

At $4 a pie, this whoopie is more expensive than your average cupcake, but as the clerk told me, she can make her pies last three days.

She has a lot more will power than I do.

Sergio Ristorante Italiano, 8727 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, (301) 585-1040.

Something Sweet, 3708 Macomb St. NW, (202) 364-2999.

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