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Casa Nonna, Italian in South Dupont - Chef Amy Brandwein comes from Restaurant Fyve - Closed


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Welcome to the Hotel California. wink.gif

Heaven or hell?

Such a lovely place

No wine since 1969

Prisoners here of our own device

They stab it with their steely knives,

but they just can't kill the beast

You can check out anytime you like

but you can never leave

Which of these applies?

There was an opening party last night, and it was wall-to-wall packed and swelteringly hot - people were drenched with perspiration. At one point, "Hotel California" started playing over the speaker system. I'm not sure how many people picked up on it, but I thought it got an A+ for humor.

And here's the press release I got today:

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(Washington, DC) - BLT Restaurant Group honors la cucina Italiana with the September opening of Casa Nonna (1250 Connecticut Avenue, Northwest, Washington, DC 20036; www.casanonna.com), the newest concept by the internationally renowned restaurant group of 19 locations around the world, including BLT Steak in downtown Washington, DC. The concept is a tribute to la bella donna, whose zest is best explained through authentic flavors set in a space of fine textures and Roman colors. Nonna is the woman who embraces tradition and family while exuding a theatrical passion for life with a 'Sophia Loren' style and finesse.

Located just south of Dupont Circle, the space, designed by Guerin Glass Architects, is open and inviting. Terra cotta floors spread throughout the main dining room as end grain oak compliments the bar/ lounge area, upper dining room and private dining rooms. Tables are built using reclaimed white oak and seating features both trattoria-style chairs and leather pincushion banquettes. A central highlight in the design is the Pizza Bar, which features a marble counter with 10 seats in full view of the kitchen and mosaic-tiled wood-fire pizza oven. Large pieces of artwork and antique mirrors adorn the walls complementing the marble, copper, bronze, leather and Venetian plaster textures. Windows open from the main dining room onto N Street and overlook the outdoor dining area comprised of 26 seats set along the sidewalk.

The ladies at the helm of Casa Nonna are Washington culinary notables Executive Chef Amy Brandwein and Maitre d' Janet Cam. Chef Brandwein comes to Casa Nonna with a solid background in authentic Italian cuisine, mainly as a result of her travels throughout Italy and the training she received from some of the industry's finest chefs and restaurants. Under James Beard Award-winning Chef Roberto Donna at his landmark Piedmontese Italian restaurant, Galileo, she served as Executive Chef and oversaw the launch of Osteria del Galileo, the Galileo "Grill," Laboratorio del Galileo and then went on to open Bebo Trattoria in Arlington, Virginia, in 2006. Most recently, she helmed the kitchen at Fyve restaurant lounge in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Arlington.

Maitre d' Janet Cam comes with a prestigious and established service background. As co-proprietor and managing director of the legendary Le Pavillion restaurant for 11 years in Washington, DC, Cam set the bar high opening the first four-star Nouvelle Cuisine restaurant in America. She went on to work at Lutece in New York and later returned to Washington to consult with restaurant groups such as Potomac Hospitality Group. Her attention to detail, service and wine programs has earned her top media accolades and praise from guests.

Casa Nonna's Rustic Italian menu, created by Chef Brandwein, focuses on local and seasonal ingredients, which help create bold, pure flavors that are the hallmark of true Italian cuisine.

Expression of quality on a modest scale has become Chef Brandwein's muse. The menu, offered in í¡ la carte and family style, combines classic with satisfying. From Sunday Supper to fresh pastas to playful wood-fired pizzas, Nonna's menu cascades, resonating with the same ambition and passion BLT Restaurant Group is known for.

The menu is a culmination of traditional Roman and Tuscan fare - starters begin with Antipasti, which includes Arancini, Pickled Roast Beets, Fire-Roasted Mortadella and Grilled Baby Octopus. Fresh Sliced Meats complete the Antipasti offering including Salumi, Cheese and Antipasti Platters.

Rustic Wood Oven Pizzas are prepared in a 850° oven utilizing cherry, oak and birch woods to create an authentic Neopolitan-style pizza made with the finest Buffalo Mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes and Ligurian extra virgin olive oil. Offering fresh local ingredients to create gourmet selections, pizzas includes Nonna with zucchini flowers, fried egg, tomatoes and mozzarella to Emilia (named for Chef Amy Brandwein) with fennel sausage, rapini, tomato, mozzarella, pecorino & garlic.

Salads are a shared affair accommodating two to three guests: Tableside Caesar, refreshing Rucola, or a twist on the Caprese with the addition of watermelon.

Pasta is both dry and house-made at Casa Nonna and will fast become a specialty. Serving options include a traditional Roman breakdown: ¼ lb., ½ lb. or 1 lb. servings. Bucatini All'Amatriciana, Linguine Alle Vongole to the simple Spaghetti Pomodoro showcases the dry selections. Fatta in Casa selections include Fettucine al Burro, Ravioli di Ricotta or the Lasagne al Forno. All Main Courses serve two to three guests and feature Chef's take on Shrimp Scampi, Grilled Swordfish Puttanesca, Chicken Piccata, to Veal Saltimbocca.

With a resonating theme of 'la dolce vita,' Casa Nonna will charm and seduce its patrons with her passion for life and good food for the soul.

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I stopped by on my way home this evening and found that, with one exception, the only thing remarkable about Casa Nonna, given its pedigree, is that the place is rather unremarkable. It's shooting for mid-level Italian and hits that mark, albeit at a somewhat higher price point than you'd probably expect (maybe 30 percent). The exception is that a solo diner can only choose from appetizers, pizza, or pasta. The salads and entrees are only served in portions designed and priced for two. And, unlike the pasta, they will not make half portions (I asked). The wine list is decent and follows a fairly standard (though kind of depressing) model: glasses are priced about the same as the retail price of a bottle and bottles are three times as expensive as a glass.

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I managed to sneak out of Buck's during service on Tuesday to attend the Casa Nonna open house. I wasn't there that long as I had to get back to work, but it was really great seeing Amy and her crew (full disclosure, Amy and I are friends). I know how hard they have been working getting ready for this opening and how dedicated Amy is to the concept of Italian home cooking. A friend of mine who was there after me was able to snag some food from the pasta/meat station said it was really good, especially the chicken picata. Simple Italian food is one of my favorite things, and I'm excited about going back next Monday to taste at my leisure

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Has anyone tried the pizza yet?

I had a prosciutto and arugula pizza last night, which was $15. It was decent, with a thin, crisp crust. Unfortunately, they slathered the crust with a fair amount of olive oil and it was all you could really taste of it. The oil also tasted burnt in a few places. I'm not sure whether they coated the crust with the oil prior to baking and burned it or whether the oil, when combined with the pizza's char, took on that flavor (which is my guess). Either way, I'd get the pizza sans oil. The pasta I had, oricchiette with raab and fennel sausage, was nice -- better than the pizza. However, at $17 for a single portion, it was about $5 more than it should have been.

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Dropped by last week and found most of it to be just okay, save for the pasta. The rice balls were plain white risotto in a too-thin shell of breadcrumbs that never got crispy, and couldn't stand up to the pool of red sauce beneath. The chicken piccata was forgettable, rounded out too much by the butter and lacking lemon/acidity. The pasta - orecchiette with fennel sausage and rapini - however, was stellar, and not overpriced. The 1/4 lb portion, at $17 is easily an entree for one and enough for 2 to 3 as an appetizer. The only outright bad part of the meal was dessert: dense donuts glazed with overly sweet limoncello, random puffs of meringue, and candied lemon peel.

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I dined there Friday night with a large group in the private room and frankly I was very impressed by both the service (really smooth and friendly and efficient) and the food - and I'm pretty fussy. We had the fried squid, which I thought was the best I've had, and the oven-roasted octopus to start. The latter was perfectly cooked - tender yet smoky and served with cubes of perfectly cooked potato and slivers of sun dried tomatoes, carmelized garlic, and olives, plus parsley - really excellent and even the unadventurous eaters at the table, once persuaded to try it, loved it. Then came wooden bowls of arugula salad with shaved fennel and parmesan. This could've used a bit more lemon juice but was otherwise just fine - no bits of bad leaves and fennel shaved thinly. At this meal, the pastas were served alongside the meats - we had the linguini with white clam sauce, which tasted good although I'd probably want it "wetter" if that's all I were eating, and the "rags" with tomato sauce and short ribs, which was very good and a crowd pleaser. The meats were the veal saltimboca, which I was surprised to discover I greatly enjoyed, and the chicken with lemon, chili, and garlic, which I loved. Perfectly wood-oven cooked pieces of small birds (still on the bone) served over wood-grilled bread with arugula on top - the lemony, garlicky juices bathed the arugula/bread pieces and created a delicious result. Sides were polenta, which I skipped but the New Yorker next to me claimed to be the best he's had in ages and he claimed to be a polenta eater, and eggplant parmesan, which I'd have preferred to be a bit less sauced but I can't deny it was tasty. Desserts were the panna cotta with fig and not sure dripped on it - yumola! - and tiramisu, which was good, not great.

We carried in a couple mags of red and I brought them quite cool so there really was no issue with wine temp. We also drank several bottles of the rose (can't get an accent here!) that's on the list and it was quite good, especially with the octopus. We didn't buy more wine because lots of people were drinking cocktails.

Everyone loved the place. My only question is what happened to Janet Cam? She was already gone from the employ of the restaurant and several employees I quizzed said it was her decision to leave but some people ITB are claiming otherwise. In any event, Janet's influence was very evident as the wait staff really were well-trained and well-versed on how to make customers feel valued and attended to.

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The pasta - orecchiette with fennel sausage and rapini - however, was stellar, and not overpriced. The 1/4 lb portion, at $17 is easily an entree for one and enough for 2 to 3 as an appetizer.

My critique of the cost of this dish was not based on size. It is a good dish, but considering its quality and the ingredients used -- in addition to size -- it is not a very good value at $17. By way of comparison, Sette Osteria, which is just up the street, serves "Cavatelli pasta with spicy Italian sausage, broccoli rabe and pecorino cheese" for $12 (which is, coincidentally, exactly $5 less than Nonna's version). I've actually never had this dish, but I think it is a fair comparison because Nonna is a similar restaurant with about the same level of ambition (Nonna has a bigger wine list and may, for all I know, have better pasta ... though Sette has vastly superior pizza).

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Although I dined here a few weeks ago, I thought what I had, the chicken parma (can't spell the rest, sorry.) was quite good. The chicken was moist, the sauce was not sweet as found in some places and breading was not thick at all. I also loved how the bread (asked plain instead of served the complimentary-styled-garlic bread) "crunched" when bent. The bread was worth it. The wine by the glass and beer list...not so much.

Overall, I have the same observation as RWBooneJr.--this place is simply not a very good value.* To me, it's not at all of economical value for the average family compared to Italian chain restaurants, if a family is looking for a new place to try. It is, however, beautiful for business meals and bills at those rates.

*Will support with figures when I can dig up my receipt:

Dinner for two

At the bar:

HH Red Wine = $5

Gingerale = $4 <---yikes!

Pepperoni Calzone = $5

+tax = $15.40

Meal:

Chicken Parmigiana=$26

Desserts = $15

+tax = $45.10.

PS. I will say, I want to support Chef Amy B. And after some reflection, I think perhaps its prices are somewhat comparable to some of its high-end competitors in DC. This town is getting to expensive to eat in, is perhaps, the larger problem? But still not quite a family destination.

Edited by goodeats
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I didn’t like anything about my visit in October. Portions were tiny for “family sized” and prices were consequently quite high, service was downright neglectful, and several dishes were sub-Buca di Beppo. It makes me sad that I had spent $90+ on an unsatisfactory meal there, rather than a great meal at Dino’s or Palena Cafe. It was so bad that I would have complained if my dinning partner that night wasn't a friend of the chef.

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I didn’t like anything about my visit in October. Portions were tiny for “family sized” and prices were consequently quite high, service was downright neglectful, and several dishes were sub-Buca di Beppo. It makes me sad that I had spent $90+ on an unsatisfactory meal there, rather than a great meal at Dino’s or Palena Cafe. It was so bad that I would have complained if my dinning partner that night wasn't a friend of the chef.

Hello Astrid,

So sorry to hear that you did not enjoy your dinner at Casa Nonna. As a new restaurant, we are always working on ways to improve service, value and quality and customer feedback is an important part of that. Since you dined with us in October, we have increased portion sizes and I think you will find it a better value. I can't speak to Buca di Beppo, as I have never been there, but we do prepare all items from scratch, with care and with using quality and local fresh ingredients

Unfortunate that we fell so short on your dining experience and I would like to invite you back as our guest.

Regards,

Amy Brandwein

amy@casanonna.com

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I didn’t like anything about my visit in October. Portions were tiny for “family sized” and prices were consequently quite high, service was downright neglectful, and several dishes were sub-Buca di Beppo. It makes me sad that I had spent $90+ on an unsatisfactory meal there, rather than a great meal at Dino’s or Palena Cafe. It was so bad that I would have complained if my dinning partner that night wasn't a friend of the chef.

Must not have been that good a friend of the Chef if you had to pay that much :):)

I went to college with her and look forward to going there and trying it on a night off

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Dear Don,

I am writing in response to the review you wrote for your latest concierge site, DCDining.com.

As someone who has always held you in high regard for your interest and support of Washington DC restaurants, I was very surprised at the incredibly negative tone in your review of Casa Nonna. While I support (and have endorsed) your endeavors and your new website, I don’t believe Casa Nonna or myself deserves this sort of attack, which seems both professional and personal (to the extent that Chefs are by nature personally committed to their work and cooking). I was asked to launch this brand new concept for the BLT Restaurant Group a year ago based on my resume, education and experience in cooking authentic Italian cuisine. As a local Chef, I was thrilled to have been chosen by partners Keith Treyball and Jimmy Haber to draft and execute a menu for a new BLT concept as its Executive Chef. Because of my menu development and positive response by guests to the cooking, I have been asked to open a location of Casa Nonna in the Company's headquarter city of New York this year. Hopefully more will follow. It is an exciting time in my career and I look forward to sharing my perspective with a new audience, or extended family of BLT Restaurant Group that has come to enjoy their current restaurants in Manhattan. This doesn't mean I am leaving my hometown of Washington DC, but it means that DC was chosen first to launch this concept before New York.

Come to your own conclusion on this - what a compliment to all of us culinary professionals - and to me. But you state in the ‘review’ that you “… don't see one talented local cook being able to save a concept that seems outdated and out of place for this area…” As we all know, the majority of restaurants that have opened in the last few years have been comfort based - in mind of the economic realities and the hurried pace in today’s world - which does not afford the vast majority of folks the luxuries of leisure and very expensive fine dining meals. Casa Nonna was designed to be a comfortable, yet lively atmosphere where people could relax and share simple and tasty Italian cuisine without overextending their wallet.

Myself, Casa Nonna and BLT Restaurant Group are committed to DC and the Dupont Circle neighborhood. Whenever you open a new restaurant, it takes time to “get to know the neighbors,” develop your roots and evaluate as need be. It has been such a great experience to meet and cook for all the Dupont locals – as well as Washingtonians – who repeatedly support us and all restaurants by going out to eat. As a Chef, I personally seek and listen to all my guests (as well as this forum) and rest assured, so does BLT. Casa Nonna, like any four month old or 50 year old restaurant, will continue to grow and mature with time. Attached is our January menu, restaurant week menus and regional Sunday dinner menu ($25 per person!)

Sincerely,

Chef Amy Brandwein, Casa Nonna

Casa Nonna Dinner Menu.pdf

Restaurant Week Menus

RW DinnerMenu.pdf

RW Lunch Menu.pdf

January Sunday Dinner in Veneto $25 per person

Sunday Menu Card Veneto.pdf

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When I previously visited (the day Casa Nonna opened), every entree on the menu was served family style. This meant that, as a solo diner, my choices were limited to appetizers, pizzas, and pastas (which were available in half portions). It would appear from Don's review, where he notes a menu featuring a $28 plate of dried pasta with red sauce, that this was still true a few weeks ago. From the attached menu, it appears that Casa Nonna has changed its dining format. Is this the case? It also appears that everything has gotten even more expensive (my $17 pasta is now $18, for instance). Have portions increased?
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without overextending their wallet.

Really... how much Soppresetta do I get for $10? Or Provolone for $8? Hell, for a buck or two less I could buy a decent sized square of Taleggio at retail prices. Oh, and your antipasti platters... that must be some fine arugula that you have matched with the prosciutto and mozzarella to charge $36.

I am hardly a spendthrift, but wow just the thought of these prices overextends my wallet.

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Can you really start comparing restaurants and what they charge to what you might pay at retail as part of a review of a restaurant?

When it comes to a product where there is a value add (say actually cooking something) I would not, but what is the value add above wholesale that I get from restaurant on cheese?

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Can you really start comparing restaurants and what they charge to what you might pay at retail as part of a review of a restaurant?

When it comes to a product where there is a value add (say actually cooking something) I would not, but what is the value add above wholesale that I get from restaurant on cheese?

People make that sort of judgment about wines all the time.

I've more than once looked at a cheese plate and mentally calculated a mark-up.

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People make that sort of judgment about wines all the time.

I've more than once looked at a cheese plate and mentally calculated a mark-up.

I really believe that the absurd mark-ups on cheese and sliced meat has surpassed that on wine. Casa Nonna is far from the only guilty party (and depending on portion size they may not be guilty of this, but they would really need to pile that provolone high) as this trend seems to have become pervasive in restaurant world.

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The animosity toward Casa Nonna in the dcdining.com review and some of the posts on this thread is off putting to me. Likely the reason that the BLT group didn't put the name BLT on the restaurant is that the "BLT" is no longer involved in the restaurant group. Branding new concepts with BLT is not appropriate as it could (a) mislead consumers and (b ) may violate an agreement between the partners (pure speculation based on my experience as a lawyer). As to the mark up on a meat and cheese tray... have you been to a movie theater in the past 20 years? The mark up on popcorn and snacks is what keeps the doors to the theaters open and allow the owners to eat at places like Casa Nonna. :)

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As to the mark up on a meat and cheese tray... have you been to a movie theater in the past 20 years? The mark up on popcorn and snacks is what keeps the doors to the theaters open and allow the owners to eat at places like Casa Nonna. :)

So what you are saying is that people should just suck it up for the good of the restaurant owners? I stopped going to the movies (and professional football games) when I could get a superior experience in my own home at a far better value. As the entertainment and sports team owners have done nothing to make their products worth the cost, restaurants are starting to do the same, not just with overpriced non-value add products like meat and cheese, but also with the ubiquitousness of the $16 hamburger, and the continued overpricing of lobster as if it were a white truffle. This is not all about Casa Nonna*, but looking over the menu it just seems that it is a glaring example of failing to provide me with a sense of value. If this attitude turns you off, well so be it, but if you want to see real animosity, read Don’s take on Dino.

*Yes, I know that I have a tendancy to go off on tangents.

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The animosity toward Casa Nonna in the dcdining.com review and some of the posts on this thread is off putting to me.

Although my experience is rather limited, I think the animosity comes from Casa Nonna's apparent decision to give us Maggiano's and charge us for BLT (which I have also found to be overpriced). However, I plan to revisit Casa Nonna soon to see how it has settled in. I would actually pay a premium for well-executed "red sauce" Italian food, because there's so little of it around here. What I had last time simply didn't justify the price.

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The animosity toward Casa Nonna in the dcdining.com review and some of the posts on this thread is off putting to me. Likely the reason that the BLT group didn't put the name BLT on the restaurant is that the "BLT" is no longer involved in the restaurant group. Branding new concepts with BLT is not appropriate as it could (a) mislead consumers and (b ) may violate an agreement between the partners (pure speculation based on my experience as a lawyer). As to the mark up on a meat and cheese tray... have you been to a movie theater in the past 20 years? The mark up on popcorn and snacks is what keeps the doors to the theaters open and allow the owners to eat at places like Casa Nonna. :)

Yeah, but I can't sneak a charcuterie platter into a restaurant :) Seriously, I am swayed away from paying more for things I can avail myself of, or make at home for significantly less cost, so I see the point of cheese mark-ups being off-putting, but in the end, it's about relaxing in the experience of it all and of course, making a profit to stay in business.

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UrbanDaddy tipped me to a new event at Casa Nonna called Tavola 12. It sounded interesting to I called up the restaurant and they gave me the skinny:

--Tavola 12 takes place every Friday and Saturday at 7:00 sharp.

--The chef creates a 12-dish tasting menu for one seating of 12 people.

--They take reservations for this event. Once they get 12 people, that's it. The woman I talked to did not mention their policy on walk-ins.

--The event takes place at the restaurant's pizza counter.

--The cost is $55 per person for food plus $30 for wine pairings.

They have a menu at their web site. They do not specify whether this is a sample menu, the menu for this week, or otherwise (perhaps the menu for the upcoming Tavola 12 tomorrow).

That's all I've got at the moment. As you might recall, Chef Amy Brandwein is behind the stove (at least her name is on the Tavola 12 menu) and I've heard good things about her on DR, so this sounds promising.

Rob

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They have had at least 10 posts on Craigslist for numerous positions including GM in the last 3 weeks. I hope nobody left a job to go work there.

I'd be interested in knowing how much notice (and severance) corporate gave to the staff. I hope that with a company of this size, they have built-in safety nets for employees of failed ventures, even if it's only a couple of weeks.

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I'd be interested in knowing how much notice (and severance) corporate gave to the staff. I hope that with a company of this size, they have built-in safety nets for employees of failed ventures, even if it's only a couple of weeks.

I'll set the over under at 1 day, and I'll take the under.

Chances are, all those Craigslist ads were because the staff saw the writing on the wall and fled. Of course, I am just speculating.

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Sad. I always thought that they needed to shave about $5 off of everything (excepts for their pizzas, which were excellent and reasonably priced), but it was still nice to have in the neighborhood.

If I had $5 for every restaurant in the area that I could say this about.......

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