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On an early visit to Coco Pazzo, we’re so enthralled by the view of the Capitol, our swashbuckling waiter, and the contours of the ceiling that we nearly fail to notice that the food doesn’t quite fall in line. If the only time you visit Union Station is to board a train or rush through the food court, it’s easy to miss what an impressive building it is. Coco Pazzo, which opened two months ago in the former Sfuzzi site, serves as a reminder. The restaurant is respectful enough of the structure’s integrity that I recall only the color of the stone, even though there are murals on the walls and some light-blue paint overhead. The restaurant is divided by a balcony, and most of the light comes from the sun shining through massive windows, although there are also several light-bulb clusters that look like giant albino raspberries. A curtain covers the entrance to the kitchen, implying, perhaps, that there is something dramatic brewing behind it.
Well, there isn’t and there is. The baby artichoke salad we order on our first visit is tough, basically inedible. But the spinach salad is a thing of perfection, studded with pancetta and fried wild mushrooms. The entrees that come next follow a similar pattern. Coco Pazzo’s waiters are always quick to trumpet the restaurant’s farrotto, spelt cooked like risotto that, not surprisingly, tastes quite like it. The dish changes daily, and tonight it’s made with veal stock, asparagus, prosciutto, and a hapless tomato sauce so dull that the dish disturbingly resembles many high-school lunches I never finished. It’s a wonder the sea bass even came out of the same kitchen: The fish is superb, baked whole with rosemary, lemon, and white wine.
The meal is as close to a Jekyll and Hyde experience as I’ve had at a restaurant. Even so, it’s still strange that a new restaurant with so much to show off (the menu at least looks impressive) would attract next to no one at prime dinner hour. By midmeal, my friend and I are the only patrons in the place. This doesn’t make us feel special. We just wish we were where the action is.
While he bones the sea bass, our waiter speculates as to why business is slow. His favorite theory is that the advertising company hired by Pazzo’s owners to hype the D.C. location dropped the ball. The original Pazzo, in New York on the Upper East Side, is always a mob scene, he says, and spinoff restaurants in L.A., Chicago, and elsewhere have been similarly successful. But the Washington Pazzo, which opened in early May, is primed for takeoff. Without prompting, our waiter informs us that Phyllis Richman has visited. He knows the table she sat at during each trip, the food she ordered, and the dishes that were photographed for the review he’s certain will help turn business around. (Now that’s what I call anonymity.)
Even though they squeezed a rave about the service out of Phyllis (she didn’t think much of the food), it will take a whole lot more than a little press for Pazzo to be the restaurant it wants to be. Every subsequent meal has its highlights: the wild mushrooms fried crisp and enlivened by branches of rosemary, the medium-rare tuna steak with eggplant, olives, and roasted peppers, a delicious and unrelentingly sweet strawberry rhubarb pie, the free round of cordials we’re awarded after waiting 45 minutes for our check.
Given that they’re surrounded by so many mishaps, it’s not that far-fetched to suggest that these successes are really fortunate accidents. On each visit, we order at least one appetizer that we sample and then quickly set aside. The prawns that come with stewed borlotti beans are flimsy and unsightly, and the fritto misto’s calamari and scallops are similarly unworthy. The vitello tonnato is a disaster; the veal is a rubbery hassle, and somehow the tuna sauce with capers, anchovies, and lemon doesn’t register on the palate.
The entrees offer little relief. None of the pastas we try works. The allegedly fresh chunks of Maine lobster that poke through a pile of linguine with fava beans are tasteless, insignificantthe only aspect of the dish reminiscent of fine lobster is its price. We expect a plate of rigatoni with “sweet and spicy” sausage and cream sauce to be abundantly rich, but the sausage doesn’t have any kick and the sauce is so thin and tame it’s hardly there. The veal in the osso buco isn’t any better than that in the vitello tonnato, and a mixed grill of drab lamb and dry sausage and quail is an embarrassment, wasting what might have once been promising cuts of meat.
After three dinners, it becomes increasingly evident that the place to be in Pazzo is the downstairs bar. As in the balcony dining room, design elements give the bar subtle flashes of visual flaira row of deep blue lights hangs over the stools, colorful glassware is displayed in hollowed-out sections of pillars. The bar menu is altogether different from the regular one, offering an assortment of pizzas, sandwiches, and unfussy entrees. On one busy night, the bar is as crowded as a downtown hot spot. And my meal is excellent. The onion soup is simple and brothy, and the deeply spiced veal in the meatball sandwich is like few things I order upstairs; it begs to be eaten. At any other restaurant, the bar is supposed to be for people with iron constitutions and the dining room for those with refined tastes. At Coco Pazzo, it’s the other way around.
Coco Pazzo, 50 Massachusetts Ave. NE. (202) 898-2430.
Citing an old review on display at Polly’s Cafe, one reader suspects I’m portobello-dependent. Call it denial if you want, but I wouldn’t consider myself a problem user. The last time I bit into one of the magic mushrooms must have been June. I swear. “You should try the grilled portobello and chevre sandwich at Bread & Chocolate,” the reader urges. “Even if you hate the place, you’re gonna get hooked.” The cheese’s pungency dignifies this sandwich, but the mushroom is definitely in charge, oozing juices and sliding from the crispy roll whenever I grasp too tight. I ate only one, but I’ve thought about it several times since.
Bread and Chocolate, 5542 Connecticut Ave. NW. (202) 966-7413.Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.