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The “firecracker” pork fusilli has something of a reputation among the staff at Fuzio Universal Pasta. I order mine with nothing else but a glass of club soda with a lime (“A good call,” I’m told), although a heaping side of advice is delivered on the house.
Considering the order, my waiter leans in. “I need to tell you that it’s very hot,” he says rather urgently. “Do you know that it’s very hot?” I tell him that I figured as much; “firecracker” seems to speak for itself. “OK,” he says, “just make sure you stir in all the sour cream before eating it. We’ve had some people freak out who didn’t.”
Catching wind of my proposed daredevil lunch, two other waiters stop by to wish me their best before the famed fusilli arrives: A punishment fan, huh? Did anyone tell you to stir in the sour cream? Be sure you do that. The premeal hype is a little unnerving. I considered ordering the “barbwire” chicken gemelli, but its cayenne- and chile-spiked chipotle cream sauce reminds me of something I was once dared to eat but didn’t. If I only had a pager I could front as a doctor, claim an emergency, and bolt.
The good news is: I survive lunch. I have plenty of help the two guys who admonish me not to take the sour cream warnings lightly; the clutch of well-wishers who give me mid-meal hanging-in-there? pats on the back. The love is nice, frankly, particularly since it’s the holiday season. But I leave Fuzio a little puzzled. Do I look so frail and helpless that it seems obvious I need directions on how to eat noodles? And who thought up this recipe? The dish is neither terribly hot nor terribly tasty. The braised pork is actually quite good; the meat is so tender it falls apart. But the habanero pesto, the ingredient that elicits such a fuss, is not worthy of it. It’s seething stuff, but the sour cream pretty much cancels it out; the next time I eat pasta with so much dairy will be when I don’t have the teeth to eat anything else.
It makes sense, I suppose, for the folks at Fuzio to be serious to borderline humorless about noodles; responsibility for the restaurant’s success rests squarely upon its beds of pasta. Fuzio is brought to us by the innovators behind Wrap Works, home of tortilla-encased culinary caricatures (full disclosure: I like the one stuffed with mashed potatoes and beef), and indeed, the formula feels awfully familiar: They’re going boutique with food staples by making them seem irresistibly new or, barring that, by bullying consumers into eating experiments that don’t work.
“You should try it,” is the Fuzio wait staff’s stock response to just about every question, leading one to believe that the menu is either uniformly flawless or uniformly flawed. It’s the latter. There’s a certain novelty to eating linguine and meatballs while your date dines on pad thai, but the kitchen’s renditions of the standards are hackneyed. The meatballs are, surprisingly, dead-on spice-studded, just a little mushy but they’re supported by so little marinara that I’m left with a half-full plate of plain white pasta as soon as they’re gone. The pad thai is more of a full-fledged disaster; by the time we find out that the brown on the cabbage is in fact age, not sauce, we quit trying to untangle the rice noodles, which have been cooked into a ball.
Despite what the pad thai and the restaurant’s name seem to indicate, Fuzio’s kitchen has a better handle on Asian pasta dishes than it does on Italian. I’d go back for the udon noodles tossed with vegetables and submerged in broth, or the Chinese chicken salad, basically a crisp overflow of cabbage (this time fresh) on a bed of rice noodles. But that’s pretty much where the fun ends. Since it opened roughly two months ago in an old shoe-store space near Dupont Circle (a waiter tells us that another location will soon supplant the Georgetown Wrap Works), Fuzio has been enjoying near sellout crowds which makes its ham-fisted pasta dishes all the more curious. I can kind of understand the firecracker fusilli people like to be told that they’re brave. But is there really a market for Alfredo sauce that tastes as if it’s been flavored with liquid smoke?
Part of the blame rests on the restaurant’s adherence to corporate efficiency. If you sit by the open kitchen to watch the pre-made pasta travel from baggy to water to saucepan to plate at the speed of a commercial break, you’ll know why your linguine with calamari doesn’t taste like Mom’s.
There are some bright spots. The panini sandwiches are decent, the focaccia is presented well, and the prices are totally fair: The firecracker experience sets me back only $7.75, and it’s one of the steepest items on the menu. Would that everything on the menu had the firecracker’s cachet; I could use a support group to get me through that barbwire gemelli.
Fuzio Universal Pasta, 1630 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 986-5300.
One reader is urging me to assail Bardia’s New Orleans Cafe for billing its boudin blanc as a “vegetarian sausage.” So Bardia fudged the truth a little he says the casing is beef, the stuffing pure vegetarian. The fact of the matter is that I’m a Bardia’s loyalist; if there’s a cozier table in town than the one sitting next to the cafe’s front window, I’d love to book it, and the food is cheap and blissfully unpretentious. Take the offending boudin blanc (offered only as a special): just a couple of crisp-grilled, soulfully spiced links sitting plump and pretty next to a mound of rice and tangy Creole sauce. It doesn’t look like much, but if you squirt half the juice from a lemon wedge over the whole thing I swear you’ll feel indebted to the cafe’s namesake, who’s easily the baddest Cajun Iranian in town.
Bardia’s New Orleans Cafe, 2412 18th St. NW, (202) 234-0420.—Brett Anderson
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