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Al Dente (was La Forchetta), Wesley Heights - The Return of Chef Roberto Donna


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FWIW, Roberto's Timpano is the single best dish that I have had in any restaurant anywhere in the last year or more.

I had the Timpano about 2 months ago on a recommendation. I thought the Timpano was ok. It was somewhat bland and the crust made it rather difficult to eat. It was very filling though. I've been to Al Dente a number of times and the Timpano was my least favorite dish. Most everything else I have had has been excellent.

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I didn't taste the Timpano that you did. I have no idea what your crust was like; I do know that what I had was exceptional, with crust that reminded me of homemade apple pie. I am being serious in saying this. Part of the success of this dish is "wrapping" penne and four hour+ reduced Ragu and egg with what amounts to a pie crust similar to what I might find on a flaky homemade apple pie.

I don't mean to disagree but this was a Great dish. I would have liked to sit across from you when your's was served. My wife and I often disagree with spoonfuls out of the same dish. Still, there's a lot of time and effort that goes into this. I have a great deal of respect for that. I've never had another "crusted" Ragu and penne anywhere. It was original and worth steering others to order.

It was also a showstopper with three or four others at the bar asking about it when it was served.

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I had the Timpano about 2 months ago on a recommendation. I thought the Timpano was ok. It was somewhat bland and the crust made it rather difficult to eat. It was very filling though. I've been to Al Dente a number of times and the Timpano was my least favorite dish. Most everything else I have had has been excellent.

I didn't taste the Timpano that you did. I have no idea what your crust was like; I do know that what I had was exceptional, with crust that reminded me of homemade apple pie. I am being serious in saying this. Part of the success of this dish is "wrapping" penne and four hour+ reduced Ragu and egg with what amounts to a pie crust similar to what I might find on a flaky apple pie.

I don't mean to disagree but this was a Great dish. I would have like to sit across from you when your's was served.

FWIW, I believe both of you are probably correct.

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I didn't taste the Timpano that you did. I have no idea what your crust was like; I do know that what I had was exceptional, with crust that reminded me of homemade apple pie. I am being serious in saying this. Part of the success of this dish is "wrapping" penne and four hour+ reduced Ragu and egg with what amounts to a pie crust similar to what I might find on a flaky homemade apple pie.

Yours sounds quite different and makes me want to try it again. My crust was hard, dense and nothing like a pie crust. Not flaky at all. It was a chore to eat. I'll re-order next time i'm in and report back.

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My crust was hard, dense and nothing like a pie crust. Not flaky at all. It was a chore to eat.

We ordered the Timpano with Joe's review and Adam's review in mind. Because of Adam's review, we also ordered a prosciutto arugula pizza, fried anchovy antipasti special, and a sauage and potato antipasti special. Really enjoyed the pizza, thought the anchovies were quite fishy even after deep frying, and generally enjoyed the sausage. The Timpano was more like what Adam described. The pasta inside was overcooked and the entire dish wasn't anything special. It was a Sunday night...

And my biggest disappointment - baccala mantecato is no longer on the menu! If there was one thing on the menu that drew me to Al Dente, it was to taste the quintessential cicchetti.

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I've never had another "crusted" Ragu and penne anywhere. It was original and worth steering others to order.

Joe, there was a movie in which just such a dish was one of the stars.

Personally I think that Eric is being far too generous in his description of the Timpano that was served to us last night. In addition to a unpleasant crust and over cooked pasta, the meatball was unappetizingly dry, the egg was a nonentity, and the sauce presented far more acidic notes than tomato. Maybe this is a dish that should only be ordered when Donna is cooking it (I did not notice him there last night - but I did not go out of my way to check), but I just cannot see it being something I would order again.

Not all was bad, as Eric mentions the pizza and sausage (other than some undercooked potatoes) were quite enjoyable.

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Maybe this is a dish that should only be ordered when Donna is cooking it (I did not notice him there last night - but I did not go out of my way to check), but I just cannot see it being something I would order again.

I don't think there's any serious doubt that Roberto is capable of cooking a world-class timpano.

When I was recently at Al Dente, it was a Monday night, and Roberto was not working then either. His sous chef, Fabio Capestrano, is a fine cook, but as much as I enjoyed the meal overall, there were two blatant errors in the cooking - brutally oversalted focaccia, and an absolute pool of oil in the bottom of my gnocchi.

That said, I cannot imagine ever going to Chef Geoff's instead of Al Dente under the current scenario. Al Dente has one of the most interesting Italian menus this city has ever seen.

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I dined with friends at Al Dente on Saturday evening. Roberto Donna was in the kitchen, looking older and bigger than I expected. I felt practically obliged to order the timpano. The crust was, as others have said, nothing like pie crust. It reminded me of matzo. Its contribution to the dish was almost entirely a matter of appearance; eating the crust was not unpleasant, but didn't add anything to my enjoyment of eating the dish as a whole. As for the rest, I would have to say that this was like nice home cooking. The pasta was not penne; it was more like short rigatoni, about 1/2 inch long. The tomato sauce was nice, the meatballs were nice, and that's about the most I can say about it. Oh, and it was ridiculously huge. As a primo, this could have served four people. I gave nearly half of it to one of my companions, whose appetite was bigger than mine, and I still couldn't finish it. On the other hand, it wasn't very expensive. Speaking of which, we ordered the assortment of three things to enjoy with bread, or whatever it said on the menu--a ricotta and herb spread, a dish of different kinds of olives, and a sort of tuna spread. All of these were also very nice, and enough with the foccacia to serve as a first course for the three of us. At six dollars, that's a pretty good deal. And I should add that the service was somewhere between excellent and superb.

I'd be happy to return to Al Dente, although I doubt that I'd order the timpano again. I can do something every bit as nice in my kitchen.

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Even with Fabio (Roberto's very good sous chef), they won't be able to handle this complex of a menu at two locations. So, I predict some simplification.

I recently visited Al Dente and upgraded them to a well-deserved Italic rating in the Dining Guide. I'll be "pleasantly surprised" if they're able to maintain this after expansion.

There is not going to be a second location of Al Dente. According to Roberto and Hakan the restaurant that they are opening will be called Alba and will be a different concept. It should be opening in the fall.

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Noticed that Al Dente is offering half price pizza on snowquester evening. Since there was no traffic during rush hour, I went there to get a pizza, and possibly order that lobster risotto. I did get a pizza, a prosciutto and arugula pie that's about as good as it gets. Some char but chewy pillowy crust. I didn't eat the whole pizza because I also ordered a squid ink fettuccine with a whole lobster. The lobster was split in half vertically, the pasta was firm, and` the sauce nice and garlicky. The night's still young, get yourself a pizza at Al Dente!

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Noticed that Al Dente is offering half price pizza on snowquester evening. Since there was no traffic during rush hour, I went there to get a pizza, and possibly order that lobster risotto. I did get a pizza, a prosciutto and arugula pie that's about as good as it gets. Some char but chewy pillowy crust. I didn't eat the whole pizza because I also ordered a squid ink fettuccine with a whole lobster. The lobster was split in half vertically, the pasta was firm, and` the sauce nice and garlicky. The night's still young, get yourself a pizza at Al Dente!

Man, you couldn't have posted this an hour ago? :D That is a good-looking pie. Wonder if they have a pizza oven made from Mt Vesuvius ash....or something else earthen?

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Noticed that Al Dente is offering half price pizza on snowquester evening. Since there was no traffic during rush hour, I went there to get a pizza, and possibly order that lobster risotto. I did get a pizza, a prosciutto and arugula pie that's about as good as it gets. Some char but chewy pillowy crust. I didn't eat the whole pizza because I also ordered a squid ink fettuccine with a whole lobster. The lobster was split in half vertically, the pasta was firm, and` the sauce nice and garlicky. The night's still young, get yourself a pizza at Al Dente!

God damn, I hate this software. When I try to edit out the part of the quoted material not relevant to my response, it hoses the whole thing and I have to start over. Four times.

Anyway, your second and third pictures seem to be of the same undisturbed dish from different angles. And yet in the second picture, there appears to be a tall glass of beer that's full or nearly so (one can't see the top of the glass), and in the next one, a different-shaped glass of beer that's nearly empty. Is this evidence of a sinister conspiracy? Or merely evidence of someone having a lot of beer before getting down to the food?

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God damn, I hate this software. When I try to edit out the part of the quoted material not relevant to my response, it hoses the whole thing and I have to start over. Four times.

Anyway, your second and third pictures seem to be of the same undisturbed dish from different angles. And yet in the second picture, there appears to be a tall glass of beer that's full or nearly so (one can't see the top of the glass), and in the next one, a different-shaped glass of beer that's nearly empty. Is this evidence of a sinister conspiracy? Or merely evidence of someone having a lot of beer before getting down to the food?

Did you read the Administrative Announcement post I made today?

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Anyway, your second and third pictures seem to be of the same undisturbed dish from different angles. And yet in the second picture, there appears to be a tall glass of beer that's full or nearly so (one can't see the top of the glass), and in the next one, a different-shaped glass of beer that's nearly empty. Is this evidence of a sinister conspiracy? Or merely evidence of someone having a lot of beer before getting down to the food?

Chronologically the 3rd picture came first. It was undisturbed as I finish up the Chimay. Then I got a Peroni and ever so slightly pull the lobster out from under the pile of fettucine.

I didn't realize this earlier but there's a whole page of the menu missing from their online menu. That missing page is under the tab "specials" on the website. The lobster fettucine is listed on the website at $25.95 but they're now $28.

I just realized that I'm a lobster pasta slut. If it's on the menu, I probably would order it. I've recently had it in Charlottesville (Glas Haus Kitchen), Las Vegas (Scarpetta), and Portland, ME (Street & Co.). I would say Al Dente's version is as good as the one at Street & Co. - both with a whole lobster. Scarpetta is more expensive, and I belive Glas Haus Kitchen is the same price, but they only come with half a lobster.

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Did you read the Administrative Announcement post I made today?

Not until just now when you posted this here. Perhaps if your administrative announcement weren't buried in Events and Gatherings, where I have no idea it's there unless it's the most recent post, which it isn't, I might have seen it? Maybe you should have a separate place to post this kind of thing that's of interest to every one of us who come to your website, even if we aren't usually interested in events and gatherings. I don't know if Invision supports this, but if possible, perhaps this kind of thing could show up at the top of every forum.

(Incidentally, my experience of the bug you describe is not exactly as you describe it. I'm using Firefox and Windows 7. When I delete quoted text, presumably only if I delete the first character, the undeleted text remains, but there's no way to get outside the quote "box" to type in my own text.)

Sorry, I really don't mean to be a griper.

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Chronologically the 3rd picture came first. It was undisturbed as I finish up the Chimay. Then I got a Peroni and ever so slightly pull the lobster out from under the pile of fettucine.

I didn't realize this earlier but there's a whole page of the menu missing from their online menu. That missing page is under the tab "specials" on the website. The lobster fettucine is listed on the website at $25.95 but they're now $28.

Ah, that makes sense. That lobster fettucine dish looks like a bargain at $28, but I can't imagine eating a pizza and then that. Did you have dessert?

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Ah, that makes sense. That lobster fettucine dish looks like a bargain at $28, but I can't imagine eating a pizza and then that. Did you have dessert?

I didn't finish the pizza. I stopped myself after half a pizza so I would have room for the pasta. And I was stuffed after finishing most of the pasta. I almost never eat dessert. For those of you who know and love risotto, our waiter from last week's tasting told me they use Acquerello rice, which apparently is hard to get.

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Not until just now when you posted this here. Perhaps if your administrative announcement weren't buried in Events and Gatherings, where I have no idea it's there unless it's the most recent post, which it isn't, I might have seen it? Maybe you should have a separate place to post this kind of thing that's of interest to every one of us who come to your website, even if we aren't usually interested in events and gatherings. I don't know if Invision supports this, but if possible, perhaps this kind of thing could show up at the top of every forum.

(Incidentally, my experience of the bug you describe is not exactly as you describe it. I'm using Firefox and Windows 7. When I delete quoted text, presumably only if I delete the first character, the undeleted text remains, but there's no way to get outside the quote "box" to type in my own text.)

Sorry, I really don't mean to be a griper.

That's okay - all you need to do is subscribe to that thread, and you'll be alerted each time it's updated.

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(Incidentally, my experience of the bug you describe is not exactly as you describe it. I'm using Firefox and Windows 7. When I delete quoted text, presumably only if I delete the first character, the undeleted text remains, but there's no way to get outside the quote "box" to type in my own text.)

Place your cursor after the last thing in the box, and try to keep hitting Return and see what happens.

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Sorry all. Black inck Fettuccine with lobster are going out of the menu until the end of this month ! The price went up 35% today so I will have to charge $ 36 a portion and I prefer to wait for the price to go down again. Freshwater head on shrimp U-10 will take the place of the lobster at $24.95 per portion. Buon appetito.

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Ate at a table last night (Wednesday) and there was a group sitting there. We got all of our usuals and everything was great. Service could have been better. Our waiter didn't really seem to give a damn, but it made me feel like I was back at Galileo. Just admit that you forgot to put in the order for one of the dishes instead of telling us it's coming up any minute.

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Question about a special request, or more accurately the lack of satisfactory response to one: Had an early dinner Saturday at Al Dente, and (being lactose-intolerant) asked the server if the chef could do the veal saltimbocca without butter. Server came back in a few minutes and told me that the chef could not, and that this version also included cream, further explaining that without both the dish would not be up to chef's standards. Ordered something else and enjoyed it, but thought this was a pretty strange response, considering that the restaurant was still fairly empty, Chef Donna wasn't busy (leaning on the bar for most of our time there), and I've had many other versions of saltimbocca that come out just fine without dairy. So the question - how do you handle what seemed to me to be a reasonable request and unreasonable response? Should I have pushed it? Spoken directly to the chef? Still like Chef Donna's cooking, but very disappointed in this treatment.

Should also note that the night before, asked the server at Riverbend Bistro if the chef could do anything with the special of the night - shad roe in caper butter - without butter or cream. Response was "Of course", and the dish of roe lightly sauted in an herb-and-lemon oil was delicious!

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Question about a special request, or more accurately the lack of satisfactory response to one:  Had an early dinner Saturday at Al Dente, and (being lactose-intolerant) asked the server if the chef could do the veal saltimbocca without butter.   Server came back in a few minutes and told me that the chef could not, and that this version also included cream, further explaining that without both the dish would not be up to chef's standards.  Ordered something else and enjoyed it, but thought this was a pretty strange response, considering that the restaurant was still fairly empty, Chef Donna wasn't busy (leaning on the bar for most of our time there), and I've had many other versions of saltimbocca that come out just fine without dairy.  So the question - how do you handle what seemed to me to be a reasonable request and unreasonable response?   Should I have pushed it?  Spoken directly to the chef?  Still like Chef Donna's cooking, but very disappointed in this treatment.

I like to have my needs met also but don't think right to bash or push a chef that gives the answer he did. To some extent, this illustrates the impossibility of pleasing everyone in the restaurant biz. Some chefs have a very strong and well developed point of view. Surely, Donna is one. For those that love his POV and style, it works. When we last did the Roberto's (4 versus the 8 it is now) we had one person in our party who was both gluten and lactose free; pretty tough for Italian cuisine. Because that is a much more personalized experience than the main restaurant, they may have made some accommodation in dish selection but not so much in composition. We all loved it.

Don't get me wrong. I LOVE how places like Rose's will basically do whatever you want and still virtually guarantee you'll love your meal. But, Aaron Silverman isn't Roberto Donna, or vice versa. Chefs and staff lay themselves out and hope enough of us like what they do to succeed. In this particular case, I think you did the right thing to just order something different and not give them too hard a time.

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Question about a special request, or more accurately the lack of satisfactory response to one:  Had an early dinner Saturday at Al Dente, and (being lactose-intolerant) asked the server if the chef could do the veal saltimbocca without butter.   Server came back in a few minutes and told me that the chef could not, and that this version also included cream, further explaining that without both the dish would not be up to chef's standards.  Ordered something else and enjoyed it, but thought this was a pretty strange response, considering that the restaurant was still fairly empty, Chef Donna wasn't busy (leaning on the bar for most of our time there), and I've had many other versions of saltimbocca that come out just fine without dairy.  So the question - how do you handle what seemed to me to be a reasonable request and unreasonable response?   Should I have pushed it?  Spoken directly to the chef?  Still like Chef Donna's cooking, but very disappointed in this treatment.

It is in the nature of a request that the response may be "no". If the chef believes that a customer's request to change his recipe would, if accommodated, essentially ruin the dish as he has conceived it, I think turning down the request is perfectly reasonable. And no, you shouldn't have pushed it. That would more than likely turn a disappointment into a ruined evening (and if you were with other people it would have ruined theirs too). You handled the situation exactly right when you ordered something else.

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I think you have to look at specific requests and specific reactions. In this case, it seems highly reasonable to me to do Saltimbocca sans dairy, unless the veal was all portioned and soaking in milk or cream (which I doubt to be the case).

It's not as if the diner requested the saltimbocca vegetarian....or with chicken instead of veal.

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I'd say you handled it correctly.  You asked if the modification could be made and it couldn't, so you ordered something else.  It's not like asking if the parsley garnish can be left off. This was an integral component of the dish as he had conceptualized it.  If they'd refused to leave the hypothetical parsley off, I'd think that was rude.  This was unfortunate for you and different from what you've experienced elsewhere but not a huge crisis.  I would, however, keep the inflexibility in mind when planning future meals prepared by the chef, as there might not always be another acceptable choice.

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I'd say you handled it correctly. You asked if the modification could be made and it couldn't, so you ordered something else. It's not like asking if the parsley garnish can be left off. This was an integral component of the dish as he had conceptualized it. If they'd refused to leave the hypothetical parsley off, I'd think that was rude. This was unfortunate for you and different from what you've experienced elsewhere but not a huge crisis. I would, however, keep the inflexibility in mind when planning future meals prepared by the chef, as there might not always be another acceptable choice.

For future planning, good to consider also what a more tailored experience (I.e., Roberto's8) or even advance phone call, can accomplish. They did some menu adaptation for us as described a bit a few posts up. I post here just to give a broader view when considering this chef's flexibility. This has nothing to do with this Chef's history. I just think him an immense talent in the kitchen and maybe not as rigid as some might think.

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Sorry, I guess I messed up on the quote function on here, and cannot figure out how to delete the post and properly repost again, but here is the statement that the below is in reference to:

Marks wrote: "Don't ask a question if you will not like the answer.  Give Roberto some slack, as he didn't share your culinary vision."

Seriously?  That is advice given to trial lawyers before they cross-examine an adverse witness at trial without having the benefit of prior deposition testimony.  Is that really the status quo at the upper echelon restaurants in town?  Especially when not trying to recreate a dish to suit the palate, but rather to comply with dietary restrictions?  He asked, was rebuffed, and it will inform his decision (and mine) as to whether to return to that establishment.

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Seriously?  That is advice given to trial lawyers before they cross-examine an adverse witness at trial without having the benefit of prior deposition testimony.  Is that really the status quo at the upper echelon restaurants in town?

I'm pretty sure Marks meant this as a joke - at least that's the way I read it: dripping with sarcasm.

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are we sure there wasn't some issue with the dish already being partially made/soaked in milk, etc? as a vegetarian who loves trying new things and new places, i'm often asking if dishes can be modified (i.e., leave out the fish sauce, leave out the bacon, etc) and i probably get turned down as often as not, and in many of those cases it's because the dish already has the meat/fish in it.

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I wrote this in a PM to Don back in 2016, not sure why I didn't just post it here, which I will do now: 

Just to clarify, this was in the main dining room, not the special menu for Roberto's 8.  I dropped in on a Monday night, thinking I'd get some pasta -- and saw Roberto on the line and asked him to cook for me, since the restaurant was pretty empty.  (They did move me to the kitchen bar that's usually used for Roberto's 8 but was empty that night.)

Roberto was working the line that night and basically cooking everything (at least all the pastas and the hot dishes).  He personally cooked everything for me.  He gave me five courses in total -- four of which were from the regular menu.  The one off-menu course he served me was genuinely great: spinach risotto with octopus.  But the four dishes he served me from the regular menu were middling at best, with none of his trademark finesse.  The dishes all relied heavily on richness and saltiness for flavor: sauces were over-reduced or over-seasoned, everything had a handful of parmesan cheese tossed over it. The chocolate dessert was inedibly sweet.

It was sad to see him cooking for a nearly empty restaurant, putting out a lot of indifferent food.  When he asked me if I liked chocolate for dessert, I told him I did and that I liked the gianduja chocolate dish he used to make at Galileo.  He replied, "People remind me all the time of dishes I used to cook for them.  I don't remember..."

I took that more to mean that he doesn't like to dwell on the past.  I'm sure people come in all the time talking about his glory days at Galileo, and he wants to deflect that kind of talk.

And that was part of the sadness of the spectacle.  Yes, he gamed the tax system, and deserved worse than he got.  But he's toiling away on the line six days a week in a kind of a backwater.

It's clear he still has cooking chops, when he wants to be bothered.  I did have a bold-worthy meal at Roberto's 4 back in 2013.  I actually saw Scalia there (it was the night after the oral argument in the Proposition 8 case).  He was putting away heaping plate after heaping plate of pasta... I'd be optimistic about a future meal at Roberto's 8.

***

Speaking of which, has anyone done Roberto's 8 / chef's counter or the equivalent recently?

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I am always astounded as to how much “under-the-radar” Al Dente is. The food is truly very good, and Roberto Donna continues to amaze with his “off-menu” dishes. And the QPR can’t be beat... While it has a loyal neighborhood following, Al Dente doesn’t seem to get much hype in foodie circles. 

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1 hour ago, gtsibouris said:

I am always astounded as to how much “under-the-radar” Al Dente is. The food is truly very good, and Roberto Donna continues to amaze with his “off-menu” dishes. And the QPR can’t be beat... While it has a loyal neighborhood following, Al Dente doesn’t seem to get much hype in foodie circles. 

A chef that was famous in the 90s + a location that may as well be Siberia for under-40 DC types don't really help get it on the radar. Maybe for the best -- as long as he keeps drawing the moneyed, older locals. 

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13 minutes ago, Kev29 said:

A chef that was famous in the 90s + a location that may as well be Siberia for under-40 DC types don't really help get it on the radar. Maybe for the best -- as long as he keeps drawing the moneyed, older locals. 

I suspect it's by design that it flies under the radar.

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