Years before Julia Child’s grand exit or Anthony Bourdain’s punkish attempts to reclaim its hipness, French food, with its love of butter and cream, had started to lose favor with America’s diners and their expanding waistlines. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration pretty much shoveled dirt onto the classic cuisine’s grave in late 2004, when the agency supported the health claim that daily consumption of olive oil could help reduce heart disease. If they weren’t already, Americans began drooling over the dishes from the cucina Italiana, with its Mediterranean staples of olive oil, fruits, and cereals.
Though the health claims may be dubious—I mean, neither Mario Batali nor Roberto Donna would exactly qualify as “fit”—the popularity of Italian food cannot be denied. Look no further than the D.C. region, where pilgrims continue to flock to the Italian temples of gastronomy, from such usual upscale suspects as Galileo and Maestro to such pie purveyors as 2 Amys and Pizzeria Paradiso. These pilgrims would do well to make a detour to a different destination: Spezie, a contemporary Italian operation run by chef Enzo Livia, who first earned a following with Il Pizzico in Rockville.
Spezie is a minimalist spot, saturated in earth tones and awash in low lights; small frosted-glass panels are affixed to the walls, each backlit to illuminate the artfully arranged blood oranges or flowering herbs within, a subtle reminder that spezie is Italian for “spices.” Yet neither the restaurant’s elegant décor nor its modern variations on regional Italian cuisines can guarantee Spezie an SRO crowd. Despite America’s love affair with the olive-oil charms of Italian cookery, Livia must confront a problem that’s beyond the reach of dining trends: a location that turns Omega Man empty when the 5 o’clock whistle blows. The L Street address that Spezie calls home has already chewed up and spat out three previous eateries.
None of those places, though, offered Livia’s homemade pastas. I count no fewer than 10 different types, many of them semolina-and-egg mixtures that provide a firm, pleasing mouthfeel. The pasta’s al dente texture proves essential in the mezzalune special. The half-moons are stuffed with a delicate filling of chestnuts and ricotta cheese and coated with a thin pinkish layer of brandy aurore sauce. Without the pasta’s slight resistance, the ephemeral dish would evaporate in your mouth, leaving behind only a faint trace of sweetness.
While the mezzalune pasta gently asserts itself, the pappardelle are downright Neanderthal-like—wide ribbons that are layered and draped over each other and, in one dish, mixed with a hearty duck ragu. The powerful, eggy pasta is absolutely necessary to compete with the ragu, a rich meat sauce that slow-simmers for hours in wine, tomatoes, and a vegetable-infused liquid. The simple bowl of noodles and meat sauce that’s placed before you reveals none of the toil required to make it.
The appetizers display a similar understated grace. Parma prosciutto is sliced as sheer as stockings; when drizzled in olive oil and wrapped around chiffonades of basil and fresh buffalo mozzarella, the combination is at once cool and salty, meaty and milky. It’s a dish entirely dependent on quality ingredients, and each one passes the sniff (and taste) test. Likewise, the scallop-and-pancetta skewers are a just pair of sweet little seared sea marshmallows bundled up in the salty bacon strips; exquisite by themselves, the wrapped bivalves gain nothing from the bed of creamy braised fennel on which they rest, a bit of unnecessary kitchen showiness.
Yet another type of cured pork makes an appearance in Spezie’s current crowning achievement, its “risotto of the day,” which, during one visit, included pieces of speck. These slivers of bacon were strewn throughout my gooey Arborio rice, which had been perfumed with white truffles and rosemary. The texture and taste were beyond decadent—salty and creamy and aromatic, with an earthy aftertaste of truffle. The risotto that accompanies the osso buco alla Milanese is predictable in its saffron intensity, though its veal-shank companion proves quite surprising. Braised in the traditional red wine and tomatoes, the shank boasts a thickish coating of seasonings that resemble bread crumbs, giving the lush meat an added depth.
So who should get the credit for Spezie’s culinary success? The obvious answer would be owner and executive chef Livia, but at present, the man behind the stoves is Italian native Luciano Salvadore, who ran a restaurant in Vicenza before immigrating to the United States and working at Galileo. Chef de cuisine Salvadore runs the kitchen on a day-to-day basis so that Livia can focus on his first love, Il Pizzico. Salvadore even draws up a daily list of “chef suggestions.”
Regardless of who’s running the kitchen, though, the two men display a flair for the regional cuisines of the Italian peninsula, whether it’s their adaptation of the traditional Vicenza staple of duck ragu or their many uses of Piedmont’s white truffle. Their refusal to embrace an exclusive Tuscan or northern Italian menu (or any other regional cuisine) says something about their ambition —and perhaps about their hopes of satisfying that expanding, all-encompassing American appetite for Italian food.
Spezie, 1736 L St. NW, (202) 467-0777.
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