Love Is … Eating Spanish Ham in Shorts
Each year in June my husband and I celebrate our anniversary. I share memories of gathering at my family’s farm. He expresses lingering bitterness about having to wear a suit. I reminisce about the Spanish ham we enjoyed on our honeymoon in Barcelona. Jason reminds me that I forgot our first anniversary while on a 10-day business trip to Nebraska, and returned home without a gift. That, my friends, is why this month we will be enjoying many nice meals out … somewhere we can wear shorts.
Dino’s Grotto Opens in Shaw
However, let’s be perfectly clear, there is no way I’m compromising quality for casual. At Dino’s Grotto (www.dinoinshaw.com,1914 9th St. NW), newly transplanted to Shaw from eight years in Cleveland Park, I don’t have to. Dino Gold, who owns the restaurant with his wife Kay Zimmerman, takes a very Italian approach to dining, casual and slow, with simple preparations showcasing the best seasonal ingredients, and plenty of time for talking and sharing stories and drinking wine.
Dino’s Grotto delivered some of the best Italian food I’ve enjoyed among many recent DC restaurant openings. The fried baby artichokes were crisper than any I have eaten, beautifully trimmed and opened, allowing the individual leaves to fry separately from the base. The Tuscan bacon with strawberries pairs crisp pork belly with roasted fruit and sweet/bright, aged balsamic vinegar. Dino tells me, “I’ve never had any Tuscan bacon but my own. I’ve read about it and this is what we came up with.” Untrained in the kitchen, Dino pairs creativity with a very Washington appetite for learning, delivering dishes that are Italian inspired without all the traditional rules.
Our second course showcased the true benefits of using seasonal ingredients. The asparagus and mushroom risotto, creamy and mild, is usually prepared with morels, but, falling perfectly between the black and yellow morel seasons, Dino was using fresh porcinis that night. Which is kind of like winning Powerball. Twice. The mild risotto was balanced beautifully by a bold bowl of cinghiale – pappardelle noodles with wild boar, tomato, hazelnuts, and just a touch of cream. The boar delivered a perfect hint of gaminess tempered by piney rosemary.
When I thought I couldn’t eat anymore, out came a steak truly as large as my head. The bistecca Fiorentina, 36 ounces of dry-aged T-bone, was perfectly cooked (that means pink most of the way through) with roasted potatoes and sharply dressed kale balancing the rich meat. Seriously, this is steak for four, which is the perfect size for Jason and me to share.
There was more: pate, trotter tots (just order them!), cioppino, house-made sausages, and the best tiramisu you have ever eaten. Then there was another hour or two of stories about food, restaurants, and why Dino’s good friend in Italy won’t buy his beef from a certain butcher because of a little incident in the late 1500s. Just go. You can wear shorts, though the food is worth dressing up for.
Menomale Serves Traditional Neapolitan Pizza in Brookland
While Dino blends Italian tradition and technique freely, Ettore and Mariya Rusciano deliver strictly authentic Neapolitan pizza at their Brookland restaurant, Menomale (www.menomale.us, 2711 12th St. NE). Stepping through the front door feels like walking into their home kitchen, dominated by the wood-fired stove that delivers the 900º F required to quickly crisp crust without overcooking the toppings. Everything about the restaurant, from the sidewalk seating to the small dining room, feels cozy and casual. Even waiting until 5:00 p.m. for your first drink (there’s a school nearby) forces you to slow down from DC’s hectic pace of life.
From the perfectly dressed fresh salad, light and crisp with fennel, to the rich pizza, the meal was delicious and the ingredients well-sourced and beautifully prepared. The pollo verde sandwich simply pairs rosemary chicken with pesto and mozzarella, a menu item you could find at many “casual” chains. At Menomale, however, the chicken is well seasoned and moist, the imported Genovese pesto is bright with fresh basil, rich with toasted pine nuts with a sharp bite of cheese, and the mozzarella is mild and creamy. Pizza dough is used for bread and the sandwich is baked in the wood oven.
The pizza menu issues the siren calls of Grana Padano, roasted eggplant, and even lobster, but the porcini mushrooms on the bianca proved truly irresistible. This white pizza combines salty prosciutto with rich mushrooms and mild, creamy fior di latte, or cow’s milk, mozzarella. The first bite was fresh and light, the ingredients tasting richer as I worked my way through the pizza, finally shoving down the last couple of delicious bites.
Since they don’t deliver, you’ll find Jason and me sitting on the sidewalk, again in shorts and t-shirts, arriving shortly before five.
Boqueria Serves Spanish Tapas in Dupont
After getting married, Jason and I jetted off to Spain for two weeks, including a stay in Barcelona. Our visit to the Boqueria market in Las Ramblas was one of the most memorable days. As Jason reminds me regularly, I wouldn’t let him pack shorts for the trip, claiming that Europeans don’t wear them, a prohibition that had eroded since my last visit. Jason spent the trip moodily wearing pants, which was suddenly softened by the discovery of patatas bravas and pan con tomate y jamón. Waking up to a grumpy husband last Sunday, I suggested we head over to the Boqueria (www.boquerianyc.com, 1837 M St. NW) restaurant in DC – in shorts.
Boqueria, a New York City import, delivered, starting with the price point, $39 for unlimited tapas, drinks, and sweets. Salivating over the menu, we jokingly asked our server to send out one of everything. She obliged.
Let’s start with the basics: pan con tomate y jamón is toasted bread rubbed with garlic and topped with grated tomato and serrano ham. We’re pretty sure it is a direct gift from God. Boqueria got it right with crusty, spongy bread, ripe, fresh tomato pulp, and perfectly salty/gamey jamón. The addition of Manchego cheese was just gilding the lily (a phrase I’ve always wanted to use!).
Patatas bravas are simply fried, seasoned potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce, yet despite a number of efforts I just can’t duplicate it at home. Boqueria again got it right with the earthiness of pimentón, smoky hot Spanish paprika, with a rich sauce. The tortilla, a potato and egg omelet, was delicious and dense, served with or without chorizo.
As for the rest of the menu? We’ll be back. From the beautifully scrabbled eggs with mushrooms to the lamb meatballs and the perfectly crisp churros it was (almost) all delicious (sorry, steamed mussels) and the sangria flowed like water.
How do you annually atone for missing your first anniversary? Each year I buy my husband a quarter-pound of the best Spanish ham, jamón Iberico de bellota, from a black-toed pig that finishes its life on a rich diet of acorns. A pound will run you about $150. Buy a quarter-pound and taste it side by side with $25-a-pound serrano ham so you know just how good it is. I’ve given you the relationship equivalent of a get-out-of-jail-free card. You can thank me later.
Jonathan Bardzik is a cook, storyteller, and author living in Eckington. Known for his weekly live cooking demos at Eastern Market (Saturdays from March to November), Jonathan loves cooking fresh ingredients as much as seeking them out in DC’s growing restaurant scene. His first cookbook, “Simple Summer: A Recipe for Cooking and Entertaining with Ease,” is available now (and would make a wonderful gift!). Grab a copy and find out what Jonathan is cooking at www.jonathanbardzik.comor his Facebook page “What I Haven’t Cooked Yet.” Need some foodporn? Follow @JonathanBardzik on Twitter and Instagram.