What’s in a Name?
Our restaurant critic found top-notch Italian food at a restaurant with a quirky moniker
I’m not sure whether diners care about that distinction, but one thing I am sure about: Gee is one talented chef. All of his pastas, except for penne, are made in house. (The dried penne is a high-quality brand, Rustichella d’Abruzzo, from Italy.) The pastas’ freshness is evident from their al dente elasticity, detected on the first bite of any of them, such as spaghetti that comes with meatballs or clams, or bucatini served in a lush tomato sauce spiked with chili flakes and cubes of guanciale (cured pork jowl). Also evident is superlative technique. Nonna’s Meatballs—based on a recipe from Gee’s mother (his three children’s nonna, the Italian word for grandmother)—are made with veal, beef and pork; they are delicate, not leaden, thanks to a panade, a paste made with breadcrumbs soaked in milk. The clams in the vongole spaghetti taste like they’ve just been plucked from the sea and are cooked perfectly to a custardlike texture. The sauce, whispering of garlic and chili pepper, is thickened by an emulsification of starchy pasta water and olive oil so the consistency teeters between broth and sauce. It is complex simplicity at its best.
Technique reveals itself in starters as well. Gee soaks julienned zucchini and a few Peppadew peppers in buttermilk, then dredges them in flour. They’re deep-fried in peanut oil and finished with a spritz of lemon juice and a smattering of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The greaseless pile puts any bloomin’ onion to shame. Octopus, as ubiquitous on menus now as charcuterie plates (I’m Eddie Cano’s plate is not mind-blowing), is another exercise in blissful restraint. A tentacle is braised to tenderness, lightly grilled and served with chickpeas and cherry tomatoes in a humble balsamic vinaigrette. Even an escarole salad with hard-boiled eggs, croutons, Parmigiano-Reggiano shavings and anchovy and garlic dressing sings brightly.
Sipping a pre-dinner cocktail, such as a refreshing I’m Eddie Cano highball (gin, lime, cucumber, basil) or a Manhattan-esque Little Italy, gives you an opportunity to peruse a black-and-white mural of actors (Audrey Hepburn from Roman Holiday, Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, et al.) with the names of Italian provinces emblazoned over them in red letters. There are other charming design elements—partitions made with clear wine bottles stacked with copper rods through them; modern, lipstick red or gray dining chairs—but there are issues, too. The place is a box made of concrete, cinder blocks, brick and subway tiles and is therefore resoundingly noisy. (The owners say they plan to install some soundproofing panels.) A no-reservations policy means waiting sometimes as long as 40 minutes outside, somewhere else (Buck’s Fishing and Camping restaurant and the Politics and Prose bookstore are across the street), or at the tiny, and usually crowded, eight-seat bar in the back of the room. Once space becomes available, you might find yourself at one of two four-seat counters in the windows on either side of the front door or at a communal table too wide to have a conversation with a person across from you without yelling.
Some of these issues can be resolved, and once you take a taste of penne baked with a ragù of beef and house-made sausage, or branzino that has been exquisitely grilled, filleted tableside and dotted with green herb, lemon and garlic salsa, your objections will likely melt away. Dessert is not a focus here, but panna cotta—sweetened cream flavored with orange zest, bay leaf and vanilla and transformed into pudding with gelatin—provides a smooth finish to an already delightful meal. Whoever this Eddie Cano guy is, he’s all right by me.
David Hagedorn is the restaurant critic for Bethesda Magazine.
I’m Eddie Cano
Overall Rating: A-
5014 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C; 202-890-4995; imeddiecano.com
Favorite Dishes: Fried zucchini, spaghetti and meatballs, spaghetti with clams, escarole salad, eggplant parmigiana, panna cotta
Prices: Appetizers: $9 to $16; Pastas: $13 to $16; Entrées: $15 to $19; Desserts: $5 to $8
Libations: There is a selection of six house cocktails, all nicely balanced and straightforward, such as the Siciliano, made with sweet vermouth, Averna (a bitter liqueur) and lemon; and the Little Italy, a riff on a Manhattan made with rye, Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth and Cynar, an artichoke-based bitter liqueur. But the wine list, created by co-owner and certified sommelier Carolyn Papetti, deserves your full attention. Papetti has created a lovely selection of well-priced Italian wines (10 whites, 10 reds, two sparkling and one rosé by the bottle ranging from $30 to $72; three reds and three whites by the glass). We recommend a bottle of the Chianti Classico Isole e Olena 2015 ($60).
Service: Efficient and helpful, but can be overbearing depending on who serves you. The bartender, Doug Fisher, is superlative and makes eating at the bar a good bet.