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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

First Look: Ghibellina

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: 14th Street/Logan Circle

The Setup

Trying to get into Le Diplomate with no reservation on a warm summer Thursday night was just as much a fool's errand as might be expected. But the rapidly expanding 14th Street restaurant scene meant dinner plans for Official Friends of DCWD Flo and Burgh, and Official Co-Writer/Fiancee of DCWD Texas meant just a walk across the street to Ghibellina.

The Vibe

I've never been to Acqua al 2, the Capitol Hill institution that shares owners with Ghibellina. But if it share any strands with the 14th Street newcomer, I can understand its appeal. The décor is handsome: the walls are brick-tiled with shades of grey, with dark brown flooring and exposed ceiling beams on top and below. The space is elongated but remains friendly, starting from the modest patio out front; to the small deck like space that overlooks it from behind an openable garage-door-style window; to the long U-shaped bar with soda shop stools that buzzes upon entry; to the rows of two and four-tops that make up the dining area in the rear; to the peeks and smells emanating from the kitchen counter in the back. Shelves of Chianti bottles, exposed brick, and post-industrial light fixtures bring a clean but warm look to the restaurant. In fact, the only drawback is the dining room’s chairs: black metal-and-plastic contraptions that remind you of lawn furniture, and are as uncomfortable.

The Food

Ghibellina is heavy on the small plates (piatti piccoli) with only a spare few entrée-sized portions (though one of those is a 1.5kg porterhouse for two), so our group of four decides to grab two pizzas and a few of the small plates to fill us up. For the pizzas, we order the simplest and the most complicated: namely the margherita (tomato, basil, buffalo mozzarella), and the Bianca (rapini, mozzarella, garlic, calabrian chilies, fennel seed, pecorino romano). These are fantastic: as our server describes perfectly: they’re hefty enough to New-York-fold each slice, but gooey enough to allow us the mix of chew and crunch and blackened flavor that makes oven-baked pizza great. The Bianca is a winner in my book: pops of heat with a pleasant bitter from the rapini, and an overall depth that makes you forget it’s a vegetarian pizza.

Our small plates are similarly tasty, though to varying degrees of consistency: our salad, the eponymous insalata Ghibellina is an arugala salad with generous chunks of avocado and confit tomatoes, but fleeting portions of emmenthaler cheese and pine nuts, all coated in a pesto-based dressing. The moments we get a mouthful of all the flavors, the salad works incredibly well, with the emmenthaler the true star of the plate. When they’re missing, it becomes rather pedestrian.

This is not the case with the stellar octopus carpaccio, thinly sliced octopus layered with chickpeas, braised arugula, and an oily, smoked paprika cure. There’s no other way to describe this dish than heavenly. It had hints of every flavor you might want: heat, bitter, savory, all soaked up together in the chickpeas, and finished with a clean perfect-amount-of-chew octopus. This was my favorite bite of the night.

We finished up with the pici carrettiera, a housemade pasta coated in tomato, garlic, basil, parsley, and peperoncino. The pasta was well done, but ultimately forgettable, a simple dish that got the job done, but had no big swinging flavors to make you recall it even a few days later. Perhaps it was our fault for not choosing one of the more diverse pastas on the menu, but all I can recall is liking it, but not in an overwhelming way.

The Verdict

The hits are high, and the room is perfect for any number of date scenarios. If it can be said that a new restaurant only improves with age, this spot is going to be real good, real fast. 

Food Rating: **** (out of 5)
Date Rating: 4 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Bar Rating:
Classy Crowd
(out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)
Ghibellina on Urbanspoon

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