In America’s political capital, eating seems to play like a fourth chair trombone in the junior high orchestra. Washington DC remember, is a city with an ever-rotating population, depending on who is in and who is out, a landscape partially consisting of transient inhabitants, many of whom come from America’s culinary hinterlands, not necessarily folks most interested in eating…or let’s say…eating well. This is not to say that genuine locals lack taste buds or that transients are culinary deadbeats, perhaps instead a population who may be engaged in activities other than cuisine. This being said, let’s look at eateries both with good, solid cooking at fair prices. And begin with Pasta Mia as the lead.
One of the best values for dollar with truly good, decently made Italian pasta is the Pasta Mia restaurant located near the noisy corner of 18th NW and Columbia NW in the trendy, lively Adams Morgan district. There is nothing “normal” about this restaurant. Nothing that puts a smile on your face, at least in the beginning. In fact, it’s a bit like being in a hurdle race and you’d better like hurdles. Don’t bother with reservations, there are none. Remember to bring cash, it’s cash only. And minimum per person charge of $15. Stand in line, yes a LONG line, meet up at 5:45 and stand in rain, snow or sweltering DC heat (under no cover, in the absence of a hard yet alone cushy chairs and certainly no “beverages served” or offered to pass the wait); just so you can grab a table for the first seating when doors open at 6:30 PM. If you are not number 35 in line forget it, best find another place to eat, or return around 8:30 as the first tables free up. And no saving places…if you are 4 persons, be there, all 4 of you, or back to the end of the line!
One day in the depth of DC’s winter snow of 2010, I bumped into the chef/owner as he hacked away in front of his restaurant. It was a wicked winter and ice had piled stubbornly deep, but I thought to myself, an equal match to the determination behind this furrowed and somewhat humorless brow. In the end, like the food in this simple restaurant, the hard shoveling had been expertly turned out. A very clean and safe sidewalk readied for the lines sure to return that night.
The owner/chef and his wife, the maitre d’, are not reputed to be the most welcoming, but after many a repeated visit, one begins to appreciate the subtleties behind this exterior. Lovely people indeed, who play second fiddle to their food, letting it speak for itself with no special bugles or unnecessary fanfare. Their unique welcome somehow suits this little rarity…whose brilliance would be hard to duplicate. Waiters do their job, mostly well-enough but always pleasantly.
When the food finally arrives, is when and where rubber meet the road. And when it arrives, it arrives steaming hot, in heaps and mounds, excellent and varied enough to meet any pasta aficionado’s tastes. Hand made Tortellin and ravioli (which would put a frown on any chef’s face) along with all the usual dried pasta forms: capellini, tagliolini, paparadella, gnochi, fusili, ravioli and with many different sauces. The red piquante sauces are hot as the menu warns. Other choices are plentiful ranging from vegetarian saucesto clam sauces as well as cream base sauces (Spinach fettucine with a cream sauce of porcinini mushrooms is fab) . Equally enormous salads: The mixed green house at $6 is utterly fresh with a snappy, garlicky vinagrette that makes you sit up straight; the caesar is also $6, equally good; several side orders (mozzarella and tomatoes, $13, prosciutto/mozarella 15, etc) lead the way and always enough to share.
But make room for the pasta as it does take center stage and averages $15-18 a plate. Plates large enough to split, 3 ways depending on how much your ordered as starters. Dessert is generally limited to tiramisu, but large enough to feed 2 or 3 and just a delicious as everything else that appears. One liter of ouse wine is a mere $15, 1/2 liter just half and comes in white or red. Last year, both red and white were surprisingly good and bang for your buck. Most recently however, the red fell flat, while the white stood its ground. Keep in mind these are table wines and from year to year quality changes depending on the growing season. Even Copolla’s (amongst my favorite american reds, dependable old world flavors) generic Rosso took a back slide this year. Bread and olive oil are the free extras as you wait. And you will wait.
Make sure and catch the chef single-handedly at work in his 2×4 kitchen. It makes the food taste even better. The ambiance is simple, but as with any place that serves good basic food at reasonable prices, the ambiance begins to warm and grow on you. By the time dinner ends, any remaining grumbling dissipates. Smiles all around. Standing in line wasn’t so bad after all and $17-18 for a huge plate of fine tasting pasta is worth 90 degree heat, 100% humidity and no cold beer at the bar. In fact, it all seems a very worthwhile bargain. Somehow all the oddities work together here and transform into novelties that compliment the meal and create a unique evening out .
This is a place full of 30 somethings and college kids, but mixed with oldies looking for a good value meal. Simplicity is the key here, simple, huge helpings and all of it good. Sauces are abundant, perhaps too abundant for anyone raised in Italy, but this is not a distraction, more an observation and perhaps Americanization of Italian tastes.
Pasta Mia is located at 1790 Columbia NW, closed Sunday and Monday, open 6:30-10PM. Tel 202-328-9119.