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If I were accompanied by anyone besides my father, Al Tiramisu’s stucco walls might seem tacky. We don’t even notice them. My dad’s a man of distinct interests, and interior design isn’t one of them. His passions are eclectic, and he’s picky about how he enjoys them. He loves hockey, but only if it’s played by amateurs or Europeans, especially Swedes. A brew made in Wisconsin is his favorite, though he applauds the Germans for making beer purity the law of the land. Politics hold his interest, though his liberalism, like his favorite music, polka, is strictly old-school.
When my dad says he’s in the mood for “anything simple,” that’s code for “I’d rather grill a steak at home.” He doesn’t like frills to invade his leisure time, and this disdain is particularly evident in his preferences concerning pasta and fish: I’ve prepared both salmon steaks and noodles, seasoning them only with dashes of table pepper, that he has said are good but a little spicy.
Al Tiramisu is an ideal place for our father-son dinner, not so much because the restaurant lacks style but because it exhibits the appropriate kind. The fuss made is all about food and service. While we would both take our waiter at his word when he says the seafood is fresh, the sense of pride he takes in displaying the rockfish before it’s cooked is so genuine that we take the time to notice the light from the fireplace flickering against its scales. When the beast later arrives on a plate, the skin’s still intact and Dad appreciates that the cook has respected the meat’s essence, olive oil being the only detectable flavor besides that of the fish itself. My swordfish is only a touch less humble but similarly divine, garnished with tomato and capers, and pierced, as most of Tiramisu’s dishes are, with a branch of rosemary.
Late last year the Post criticized Tiramisu for offering the “inevitable
modern Italian menu.”
Which I guess is true, although you can rarely count on a midrange restaurant such as Tiramisu to present its wares with such consistent affection, never leaving you stuck with
The restaurant makes up for what its interior lacks in flairthe fireplace is the only notable provider of optical ambienceby making every dish feel like an extravagance. There are three kinds of carpaccio, which don’t have much in common. The beef is the most conventional, shaved thin and served with slivers of Parmesan, arugula, and truffled oil. The seafood varieties are more dynamic: The smoked tuna “carpaccio” is sauteed ever so slightly in balsamic vinegar, and the swordfish is imbued with the colliding tastes of green peppercorns and diced oranges. Pungent goat cheese is lavished upon the grilled portobello, and the sweet roasted peppers are slathered in rich Gorgonzola and bagna caoda sauce. Even the breaded calamari, not fried but grilled, taste sensuous, although they pale in comparison to the pillowy whole squids a friend orders on a later visit as an entree.
What a traditional Italian restaurant like Tiramisu has on its more highbrow competitors is that it caters to the simple cravings of most Americans. Not to discredit any chef’s tendency to indulge his wilder culinary impulses, but when my friend is suffering an acute agnolotti jones, nothing but the genuine article will do. When she’s finished devouring Tiramisu’s potent rendition of the cheese-and-ravioli belt-buster, she doesn’t say much except that she needs a cigarette. Another friend hasn’t had osso buco much since he moved away from Queens; digging with his knife at the marrow in the veal shank’s bone and then spreading it over the saffron risotto, he’s reminded, for some reason, of a childhood friend’s single mother who used to get drunk on wine with a neighborhood priest. My dad’s rockfish prompts him to express regret that I’m no longer around to cook with him.
Not everything at Al Tiramisu succeeds in arousing the senses. The long, hard, thin sticks of bread that are set in baskets on the table seem pointless unless you treat them like crackers and crumble them into your soup. More useful breads are presented in time, but the accompanying olive paste, although providing a welcome break from butter or olive oil, doesn’t bite the way a high-quality tapenade should.
But seeing as those things are free, you won’t be left with much to complain to chef Luigi Diotaiuti about. Diotaiuti provides Tiramisu’s charisma. He’s always working the room, usually sporting a clash of loud prints and hovering to witness your reaction to the dessert he named his restaurant after. Diotaiuti’s a smiler, animated without being particularly talkative; he projects an enthusiasm for his wares that implies that their pleasures must be tasted and cannot be adequately spoken of, so I wonder why he even bothers to press so much flesh.
Diotaiuti answers my question later when, on my way to the bathroom, I run into him standing at the wait station, wiping sweat from his face. I mention to him that I’ve yet to see him stay in the kitchen and sarcastically inquire if he ever does any actual cooking. He nods and responds, “Of course. I’m an entertainer.”
Al Tiramisu, 2014 P St. NW. (202) 467-4466.
I’ve written before that I’d do just about anything to get my hands on good hash brownsthe perfectly crisp and oily shredded spuds that go so great with eggs are mostly absent from area menus. I’d even go so far as to eat at Steak N Egg Kitchen. Someone I met at a party shares my affection for the dish and directed me to the chain, which offers a version, albeit a lame one. An unhealthy portion of butter and the patience to allow the potatoes to get dark brown on the grill are essential. But neither measure is taken with the limp pile of mush I’m served. And while I’m a fan of the ramshackle surroundings at most diners, you’d think that someone here could find the time to buy a broom and use it.
Steak N Egg Kitchen, 4700 Wisconsin Ave. NW.
(202) 364-9375.Brett Anderson
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