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The mozzarella in corrozza at Sergio’s

I realize that this may come across as self-serving — as in, gosh, you should trust Y&H over those folks on various community sites — but after I read these reviews on Yelp about Sergio’s Ristorante Italiano, my interest in and suspicions about the place swelled to equal proportions. A few sample comments about the Silver Spring institution:

  • As a Silver Spring local, i feel like this place should be among the top places to eat in the DC area. Its true, the atmosphere is a bit lacking but the food really does make up for it. It is amazingly delicious and delectable and year after year, it does not disappoint. I look forward to visiting this great restaurant. Maybe because it is so hidden away, its still a true gem.

  • Sergios is so good I hesitate to review it on Yelp…The crowd is a good mixture of longterm devoted local fans and random  walk ins from the hotel. They never advertise and they never seem to make anyone’s “Best Of” list.  I think it’s because the regulars don’t brag about it for fear of it being overrun.
  • While this place can only be described as traditional Italian food, it’s too basic of a phrase to actually describe the flavors and meal itself.
  • It’s a great, small family-owned business.  The owner is from Italy, goes back every year, and brings back new inspiration!  The menu changes constantly and the chef is great with improvising if there is something in particular you like…It’s probably the best italian food I’ve had in that area.. and better than many of the overpriced italian restaurants in dc.

There literally is not a single bad review on Yelp about Sergio’s, which averages 4.5 stars based on 12 separate critiques. To the average Web surfer looking for a good Italian restaurant in the D.C. area, Sergio’s would land near the top of the list. Its rating is better than those for Ristorante Tosca, Siroc, Bibiana, 2Amys, and many others. It shares the same rating as Obelisk.

On Friday night, I invited a well-known Italian chef, with more than 20 years experience in the kitchen, to join me at Sergio’s to assess the restaurant’s authenticity — or at least its resemblance to regional Italian cooking. I granted the chef anonymity in return for his honest opinions. I’ll call him Claudio for the sake of this story.

Not long after we were ushered to our seats in the subterranean restaurant inside the Hilton on Colesville Road, Claudio told me, in no uncertain terms, that  Sergio’s didn’t feel Italian to him. I asked him what he meant. Claudio started talking about the smells and the music and the general aura of small family-owned restaurants back in Italy; Sergio’s is aiming for that kind of easy, carefree vibe, but falls short with its dated, nondescript decor and its cheerless staff. Claudio says he didn’t see anyone smile during our visit.

Things didn’t get much better when we started reviewing the plastic-covered menus. They were written in both Italian and English or, as Claudio noted, the dishes were Italian “by name but not by execution.”

We started with the mozzarella in corrozza, which Claudio tells me is a street food readily available in Naples and Apulia. A round of fresh mozzarella is typically concealed between slices of a good, hearty Italian loaf. The concoction is then dipped in milk and eggs and fried. An anchovy fillet, or half of one, is usually sandwiched inside the bite. It should be crunchy, airy, buttery, and pungent all at once. The version at Sergio’s was as soft as a grilled cheese sandwich on Wonder Bread, and it tasted mostly of fryer oil, although we both liked the accompanying creamy anchovy sauce for dipping.

For our mains, we were thwarted on our first requests. Sergio’s had exhausted most of its housemade pastas, including the fettuccine and tonnarelli. We settled for Sergio’s ragu served on penne (instead of the advertised fettuccine) as well as its manicotti ai spinaci, in which house-made manicotti is stuffed with spinach and ricotta.

The manicotti was so overcooked that it had the texture of cream cheese. Even more troubling to Claudio, the manicotti was topped with a thin layer of provolone cheese, which has all the authenticity of Olive Garden. The penne was likewise overcooked, although it was properly salted and flavorful; the ragu itself was sparsely applied and watery, as if the cooks hadn’t drained the pasta completely. For Claudio, the dish’s main fault was its inability to tie its flavors together into a coherent whole.

As we sat there at the table, picking at our plates, we started talking about Sergio’s reputation among diners and why they’re so passionate about it. Claudio thought Sergio’s modest prices factored into diners’ assessments. He also noted how most of the people who commented on Sergio’s were local to Silver Spring and perhaps long-time fans. The implication was that they are perhaps biased to the place.

As we finally left Sergio’s and headed to our respective cars, I had to ask Claudio one final question: Was there anything authentic about our meals? He turned to me and said, straight-up, “There was nothing Italian about our meals.”