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Earlier this fall, Olazzo and Nicaro opened virtually next door to each other on a shabby stretch of Georgia Avenue, just a block or so from the soul-sucking revitalization vortex of downtown Silver Spring. At first, I had a desperate, itchy-nut urge to make grandiose claims about how the two restaurants represent a split from the celebration of chain hospitality that defines the Ellsworth Drive strip.
And why not? I’m a card-carrying, knee-jerk lefty who wants to blame corporations for the world’s ills, from global warming to 475 pay-per-view channels on Comcast, and the main Silver Spring drag provides all the evidence you need to condemn its rebirth as corporate totalitarianism. There’s Romano’s Macaroni Grill, Subway, Red Lobster, Redrock Canyon Grill, Chipotle, Fuddruckers, Chick-fil-A, Potbelly Sandwich Works, and, of course, the requisite Starbucks.
But after some thought, I’ve decided that Olazzo and Nicaro are really just higher-profile examples of what’s already taking place along the Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road corridors. People, it seems, define Silver Spring’s revitalization solely based on what they see and eat along Ellsworth Drive when, in fact, there are all sorts of interesting, semi-interesting, and totally asinine places opening along the fringes. I can count a number of (relatively) recent additions such as Sushi Jin, Lizbeth’s Café, Piratz Tavern, and Taste of Jerusalem. Even more tantalizing, an Indian/Nepali kebab joint and a brewpub/restaurant run by Hook & Ladder Brewery are set to open in the near future.
All of these places fill in gaps left by the corporate behemoths of Hellsworth Drive, as locals call the brick-lined boulevard. No doubt many of the fringe players will die ugly deaths as the crowds continue to funnel into the main strip, like cattle to a feedlot, from the multi-story parking garages designed precisely for that purpose. But Olazzo and Nicaro will survive, I predict, each for different reasons.
The new branch of Olazzo is the first expansion of the Italian-American joint that brothers Roberto and Riccardo Pietrobono opened five years ago in Bethesda. You might think Silver Spring already has its fill of red-sauce houses, represented by that fading starlet Vicino Ristorante on the south side of downtown and that boardroom yes-man Romano’s on the north side. But Olazzo has carved out its own niche. It’s like this countryside Italian villa that can be either romantic or homey, depending on your mood.
Members of the Pietrobono family did virtually all the renovations themselves, transforming the grimy roadhouse known as Half Moon Bar-B-Que into this warm, rustic setting, close in spirit to their Bethesda outlet. Every time I visit the new joint, I practically want to slip into my jammies and curl up in front of the crackling hearth with my wife and a bottle of Chianti Classico. OK, the fireplace is just a flatscreen TV on a continuous burning-log loop, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t make me feel warm, as does the low lighting, the wood-beamed ceiling, the flickering table candles, and the giant faded snapshots of God knows who.
The Pietrobonos are masters of intimacy. Their food is almost beside the point, but I’ll say this about their menu: It’s better than it needs to be. I’d visit Olazzo just for an icy draft of Peroni and a basket of the exquisitely crusty rustic bread (made especially for the brothers by Upper Crust Bakery), while sitting in the moody front room, which Roberto Pietrobono likes to call his “sports bar.”
But I’d also be content, if not always thrilled, with other dishes on chef Riccardo Pietrobono’s menu. The breast meat in his chicken cardinale can be dry, but you’ll be hunting down every last penne tube to soak up the lush tomato-cream sauce, perked up with mouth-puckering sun-dried tomatoes. The same boxed De Cecco penne appears with the homemade meatballs, snowball-sized rounds spiked with fennel and draped with an ever-so-sweet and garlicky red sauce.
The portions here are the size an Italian mother serves to fatten up her kids. This is a mixed blessing with the veal piccata, land masses of thinly pounded scallopini over angel hair pasta; the underseasoned veal is challenge enough to eat, let alone with a sauce that leans too hard on lemon. The salt level is far better on the sprawling bowl of fried calamari, each wobbly ringlet so tender and yet so coated with crunchy batter that I had an aftertaste of flour in my mouth. Only the Hungry-Man portion of chicken parm, a pounded breast entombed in cheese and seasoned breadcrumbs, enticed me enough to consider polishing off the whole plate.
If Olazzo can skate on its charms and crusty bread, Nicaro must satisfy a far higher standard, which is only appropriate given that chef/owner, Pedro Matamoros, first made his name at the Tabard Inn, the D.C. institution that graduated such toques as Peter Pastan and David Craig. Matamoros’ ambition in the kitchen—house-made charcuterie and pasta, for starters—immediately places him at the forefront of Silver Spring’s fine-dining scene, which maybe isn’t saying that much.
Almost two months into its existence, Nicaro’s kitchen isn’t quite yet capturing the essence of Matamoros’s dishes. I can give you three quick examples, each, interestingly enough, a dish that requires a spoon to eat. The Thai butternut squash soup sounds like the perfect winter dish, earthy and hot, but the unbalanced liquid is so spicy that I felt powder burns in my throat. Likewise, the seafood gumbo, with fiery house-made andouille, coats your tongue with more acrid smoke than a California wildfire, while the chewy Maine lobster succotash goes overboard on the sweet corn.
Even little missteps are magnified in a restaurant that aspires to more than Olazzo. When my friend’s semolina-encrusted oysters, still sweetly plump and briny, arrived without the advertised tasso, the waiter just stared at her dish, almost hoping the smoked ham would magically appear. Never did it occur to him to fetch some. Nor did it seem to bother the wait staff that they presented my succotash entrée while I was still pounding down this wickedly sensual dish of lamb Bolognese with frilly homemade tagliatelle. C’mon folks, the rule is simple: Don’t fire the mains until we’re almost ready for them.
But Nicaro proves surprising in the least likely places, like on the lunch menu, where the smoky Cubano is a savvy interpretation of the classic sandwich; you’ll find the standard hit of mustard not between the slices of crunchy ciabatta but in the inspired chimichurri dipping sauce. Even better is the Maine lobster quesadilla, which sounds like an insult to the shellfish. But, no, these succulent pieces of lobster meat, encased in brie and crème fraiche, are stuffed inside the flakiest tortilla you’ve ever tasted And if someone offers to sell you Matamoros’ crackling cranberry and pork sausages a la carte, you damn well better jump at the chance.
Nicaro, no doubt, will only improve with time. It exudes that perfectionist vibe. But more important, with more places like Olazzo and Nicaro in the ’hood, you may never need to venture onto Hellsworth again.
Nicaro, 8229 Georgia Avenue, Silver Spring, (301) 588-2867; Olazzo, 8235 Georgia Avenue, Silver Spring, (301) 588-2540
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