The dish: Tortelli di zucca
The location: Spezie, 1736 L St. NW, (202) 467-0777
The price: $16
The skinny: Owner Enzo Livia closed Spezie for two months this summer to give his downtown eatery a little more air: The monolithic wine room has been torn down in favor of a communal bar table and more open space, glorious open space! But Livia also used the time to conceive and develop a menu with his new chef, the well-seasoned Cesare Lanfranconi, formerly the top toque at Ristorante Tosca, where he’s still a partner. The changes are subtle but significant: If Spezie was once the best well-kept secret of D.C.’s Italian dining scene, then it’s now posed to be one of the best, period. The tortelli di zucca, a new pasta on Lanfranconi’s fall menu, offers early evidence. The Northern Italian dish typically screams in your face with its blunt combination of roasted winter squashes, spicy mostarda di cremona, salty Parmigiano, amaretti powder, and aromatic nutmeg. Lanfranconi has muted the shrill mostarda, so that it registers more as sweet hits of acid rather than fruity blasts of mustard-seed heat. The chef also plays up the textural contrasts between his almost mousse-like filling and his pleasantly pliant pasta. The final application of a sage-butter sauce seems to serve as Lanfranconi’s main equalizer here: It prevents the roasted winter squashes—the chef prefers butternut squash and kabocha—and other sweet ingredients from sending you into sugar shock. The dish, if I had to hazard a guess, is a smart, slightly Americanized version of an Italian classic, or maybe it’s just an early mistake in the kitchen. Whatever the case, I have to say I’d personally like a little more nasal-clearing mostarda in my pasta.