Ask a restaurateur opening a cozy corner restaurant and he’ll tell you his aspirations are to be a neighborhood place. But these are often just buzzwords. To experience a textbook example, visit Sal’s Italian Kitchen in Cabin John where keeping things neighborly comes easily.
It’s easy for guests to push tables together when neighbors and friends discover they’re dining at the same locale. It’s easy to understand the classic Italian menu that doesn’t break new ground. And, during our visit, an American University student sporting denim shorts provides easy service, free from upsells or speeches.
This red-sauced “Cheers,” is from Damian and Stephanie Salvatore, who are also behind Wild Tomato a few doors down on MacArthur Boulevard, plus Persimmon in Bethesda. Damian’s father hails from Italy and Sal’s Italian Kitchen represents Damian’s first opportunity to cook an all-Italian menu. The couple transformed the space housing their former Asian eatery, Indigo House, re-opening as Sal’s on May 2. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” Damian says. “I’m a pasta guy all the way, I hate this no gluten stuff.” Furthermore, he loves being back in the kitchen.
Sicilian-style roasted cauliflower with fried capers and cherry peppers
Damian Salvatore and his kitchen partner, James Bland, cook simple, nostalgic dishes. A heap of linguini and clams conjures up a teenage trip to an Italian joint at the shore. Subs and mozzarella sticks summon a trip back in time to a post-soccer game chow down. But not every dish is without finesse.
Two appetizers stand out. The golden brown Sicilian-style cauliflower detonates the palate with briny capers, fiery cherry peppers and a lemony anchovy garlic sauce. The starter is addictive—one table hoards florets to smash into pasta later in the meal. The burrata is eagerly gobbled up too. An orb of the Italian cheese with a creamy center finds crispy pancetta, basil oil and a smear of tomato jam as its sweet supporting cast.
Meatball sub with house-made meatballs, marinara, mozzarella and Parmesan on a toasted baguette
One section of the menu is devoted to paninis and subs ($8-$10). We sample the meatball sub—attacking the meatballs with a knife and fork and saving the bread to sop up the tangy marinara sauce.
Entrees span exaggerated portions of pasta ($10-$18) and mains ($16-$24). Sal’s is as generous as a seaside restaurant when it comes to clams in the linguine dish. I’d come back for the dish if a pop of acid or heat were added. “There’s something missing,” my dining companion relays. I covet the same dish served with red pepper flakes at Sal’s neighbor, Wild Tomato.
Branzino with lemon caper butter sauce, haricot vert and roasted tomato ragout
We also sampled the branzino, which is a mega-value at $18 (Georgetown’s Fiola Mare serves the fish sans sides for $65). Sal’s version comes with a roasted tomato ragout, green beans and lemon caper butter sauce. The fish tastes fresh; Damian Salvatore says it’s flown in daily from Turkey. He adds that it’s a popular pick; I can taste why.
Sal’s playful cocktail menu ($9-$12) gives drinks an Italian accent. The “Mojito Italiano” flaunts Campari and Prosecco, for example. The drinks seem too sweet to temp me, save for the Negroni or Manhattan, so I stick to wine. Both the glass selection ($8-$11) and bottle selection ($34-$102) pull from Italy and the new world. As a barometer, Cakebread Chardonnay costs $36. For a deal, visit on “Vino Mondays,” when bottles are half price with an entrée purchase. The beer list could be improved beyond offerings including cans of Miller and Coors.
Sal’s Italian Kitchen patio
Sal’s definitely succeeds as a neighborhood restaurant: The small patio with wrought-iron seats was packed with groups dining with dogs; cyclists swinging by to pick up calorie-replenishing lasagna; kids in the dining room climbing on furniture; and a high school couple who appeared to be on date No. 3. Everyone is welcome and seems to know each other. All patio seats are filled on a Wednesday evening, but the 45-seat dining room has plenty of room.
Sal’s Italian Kitchen dining room
Go, wait or skip
Go. There are few surprises when it comes to food and drink at Sal’s, but that’s the point. Everyone from picky eaters to self-professed foodies will find something satisfying.
Sal’s Italian Kitchen is open daily from 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
7945 MacArthur Blvd., Cabin John; 240-802-2370; www.salsitaliankitchen.net
All photos by Laura Hayes