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Saturday, March 6, 2010



Plaudits: Washingtonian 2010 #74
Neighborhood: Downtown, McPherson Square

The Setup
I hadn't seen Official Friend of DCWD Ruby in a year, so we were due to see each other. I had passed by Potenza several times on the way to other restaurants, and had always been captivated by the action going on behind the windows; the bakery and bar areas are in full view of the street and are always bustling and fun to watch. So when Ruby said she was down for Italian food on our hangout, I immediately thought of Potenza.

The Vibe

It's hard to peg Potenza, mostly because it's almost 3 different things. Is it the low-key bakery whose every working you can see from the window? Is it the swanky dimly-lit bar area that always seems full? Or is it the restaurant from the same people as Zola, that has picked up its own good reputation? Potenza is different from a lot of other restaurants in this sense; the bar area, the dining area, and the bakery are three completely discrete entities. Walking in, you could easily imagine yourself going to Potenza for a morning biscotti, a happy hour drink, or a sit-down dinner, which is what we were going for.

Each section has a different decor that reflects as well; the bakery is very mom and pop-ish, bright and white with metal tables and black and white floor tiles. On the other end of the spectrum, is the bar which at night has strong accents of black and red, and is curtained off. I can't comment on the particulars, since we didn't go in, but it seemed a little bit trendy and classy at the same time. The restaurant's seating area tries very hard to be Old World in theme, with an amber color scheme, dull brown and gray tiles, and beige walls covered in decorative plates. The seating is almost all four-tops, with a couple booths that are all uniquely strange; two booths along one wall have giant red plush couches as seats, the others are tall ceiling-to-floor benches with woodwork reminiscent of old church confessionals. The lighting is very dim, so much so that I couldn't take any pictures of the food. The rest of the L-shaped seating area is dominated by an open kitchen where you can see the pizza oven, separated from the tables by a marble-countertopped bar.

Overall, while it certainly didn't match other restaurants in straight-up date friendliness, I have to give it credit for the variety of vibes; let's call it date versatility. Not many places can boast that under the same roof, you can have a casual bake-shop coffee date, first date cocktails at a impressive-looking bar, or a nice anniversary dinner.

The Food

With a bakery in house, the bread course should be discussed. They gave us three types of bread: a soft and fluffy foccacia topped with parmesan, foot-long thin breadsticks, and semolina. With this they gave us plate of dipping sauce, a combo of minced garlic, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. Delicious.

Ruby declared that she had been craving calamari for whatever reason, and so we ordered the fried calamari, which was served with a putanesca sauce. I was looking forward to it too, but it came out a little disappointing. The breading was very nice, tasty with just the right amount of crisp. But the calamari itself was overcooked, and just too chewy to be super enjoyable. Which was disappointing since the putanesca was so good.

For our entrees, I went with the scaloppine di Vitello, a veal scaloppine served on soft polenta with prosciutto, sauteed spinach, and provolone sage. The whole dish was best described as disappointingly good; expectations were high but it only ended up as a good dish, not a great one. The veal was pretty decent, the prosciutto was crisp and bacon-like, and the polenta stole the show, creamy and unctuous. Moreover, the sauce was good and it was nice to take the leftover bread to dip into it. But the spinach was starchy and flavorless, and expectations were high enough for the dish, that it ended up as disappointingly good. I just wanted so much more out of it.

Ruby ordered the cappellini Angelo al Pomodoro (tomatoes, basil, garlic, and olive oil). I'll quote her directly on it: "It was mediocre. Cappellini pomodoro can be sooo good if the flavors are layered right and if thought is given to the dish, but this was really basic and kind of just thrown together like an afterthought. It was missing something! The pasta was cooked well, but eh, there was nothing special about it." Wah, wah.


Feeling game enough for dessert, Ruby went with the cannoli and I went with the bombolini, fried doughnuts served with a morrello cherry sauce. Both of the desserts were absolutely wonderful. The cannoli was "untraditional" according to Ruby, in that it tasted almost cinnamon-y to her, and the filling was more chocolate than cream. All the same, it was crisp and clean and just the right amount of sweet (I should note that this was not a completely shared feeling; Ruby thought they didn't need to mess with a classic). For me, the bombolini was the winner (finally, I get the better dessert!), the doughnuts perfectly light and coated in cinnamon sugar. The cherry sauce was also wonderful, providing a great flavor compliment to the dish. Absolutely recommended.

The Verdict

Sometimes you want to love a restaurant more than you actually did; this was one of those cases. But objectively, this meal could only really square away at 2.5 stars (especially given my reviews of similar restaurants with similar meals). There was quality there in the meal, but also problems, and there wasn't anything above a good dish to be had that night (Ruby adds: "Overall it was okay, I'd go back and try some of the other dishes-- the pizza looked good!") All the same, as a date restaurant, I have to again give the nod towards the sheer versatility of the space; you can take just about anyone there and they'll enjoy one of the three sections (you know, as long as they don't hate Italian food). Overall, a solid restaurant with its own brand of charm.

Food Rating: ** 1/2 (out of 5)
Date Rating: 4.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code: Casual
Bar Rating: Classy Crowd
Vibe: Chatty
(out of 5) ($25-$50 for two)
Pairing: Take in the Capitol Steps, a satirical singalong show that pokes fun at politics and world affairs. Shows are in the Ronald Reagan Building every Friday and Saturday night year-round. Tickets are $35. More details at:

Potenza on Urbanspoon

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