Iron Gate

In my mind, in my family, in my culture, food is an expression of love. It’s really not even an expression, food is just love. It’s how you show love and how you celebrate love. Almost all of my favorite memories revolve around an extraordinary meal, not always necessarily because of the food (though sometimes yes), but because of the people, the place, the time. My boyfriend and I have celebrated several memories with great meals– we’re both foodies and we have so much to choose from in D.C. For our one year we wanted to do something really special and so we chose Iron Gate.

Everything about it is understated: its location, its online presence, its accolades. I had heard murmurs of good things about its amazing food, excellent service and romantic ambiance so it seemed like the perfect choice. I’ll just start by saying that this was one of the best meals of my life. I’ve waited almost two weeks to review because I wanted to make sure and it really, really was.

We made reservations in the tasting room that offers set 4-course or 6-course menus and optional drink pairings. We were greeted with two glasses of prosecco and a dish of olives. The first thing I noticed was that we were seated near an open kitchen but we couldn’t hear a sound. We had fun watching the prep chefs out front and couldn’t believe how they were doing everything wordlessly. Not once during the evening did we hear the clink of a dish or a pan. It was a testament to the exceptionally trained staff. We were constantly attended to– never had an empty water glass or silverware out of place– and our waiter was unbelievably knowledgeable.

After deciding on the four course + wine we were quickly brought a smattering of small plates. A watermelon, feta, speck, and mint salad; pickled cauliflower and squash; focaccia grilled with cheese and zucchini. We shared a frittata that was probably the most average thing we ate all night, but it was elevated to another level with homemade basil pesto and slivers of Parmesan which had been lightly fried on the bottom– a delightful take on a Parmesan crisp. Our favorite, and perhaps the star of the night, was an octopus salad with a hint of red pepper. Brined and poached it was exceptionally tender with such great flavor. From that point on we felt like we could have been at any restaurant in southern Italy or Greece.

Next came sweetbreads over a bed of kale, mustard seeds and charred peaches, along with squid ink taglierini with sweet blue crab that was accompanied by the playful bite of bottarga and Processed with VSCO with f2 presetcrumbled pistachio. I was hesitant about the sweetbreads, but they were so tender and so flavorful that I could have ordered them myself. The taglierini may have been my favorite dish of the evening. It was sweet and savory and the pistachio was so unexpected, but the perfect addition.

Then a sweet corn risotto with grilled shrimp and feta. The risotto was light and creamy yet full of vegetables to give it an extra bite. We also had lamb two ways in a traditional lamb chop and keftedes served over an olive tapenade, garlic mousse and summer squash. The garlic mousse was divine and the lamb, with a beautiful char, melted in your mouth.
At this point, we could barely think about something sweet, but out came four more dishes. Hazelnut mousse, burrata with a maple fennel and toast, tiramisu, and loukoumades (bite-sized doughnuts). Dessert, for me, is always an afterthought following such a meal; however, nothing disappointed.

The drink pairings were also wonderful. Each glass of either Greek or Southern Italian wine was paired perfectly with every dish and was transformed by the ingredients on the plate. I love wines from these regions because you can sip them on their own and then again after a bite of food and you’ll taste something entirely different. Given my selection of dishes, I had exclusively white wines which, for a red wine devotee, was really the only quasi-disappointing element of the night.

Often I feel like you can spend a lot of money on a meal and leave hungry or feel like you’re eating a piece of art more than anything else. Iron Gate was nothing like this. It was real food crafted beautifully and I would return in a heart beat.

Iron Gate, 1734 N Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20036

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Osteria Marco

I think Osteria Marco is the best Italian restaurant in Denver. Imagine walking down a wide stairwell into what is presumably a basement dining area, only to find yourself in the middle of a true, Italian osteria. It looks like a polished wine cellar, intentional but humble.

The wine list is spectacular, especially if you know Italian wines. If not, hopefully the server can point you in the right direction (this has been, honestly, a bit hit or miss). Immediately, without hesitation, order the house made burrata. Even if this is the only item you eat all night, it will be well worth it. I have yet to find a burrata that can compare and I have tried many. The burrata is accompanied by ciabatta from the grill. If you’re with a group, a good addition is a separate order of the grilled ciabatta, which comes with a mix of pesto, tomatoes, balsamic, and parmesan.

Really, any one dish on the menu is worth trying, but I prefer the pizzas. And not just because I love pizza. The real stars of OM are the ingredients, and on the pizzas you can taste them all. The meatballs, the salami, the prosciutto, cheeses, and oils… they all stand out. Here’s a pro tip: soak up some of the hot olive oil that will be on your table with your pizza crust.

Osteria Marco is unique. You feel comfortable, casual, sitting with friends or family and enjoying good food and good wine. But you also walk away sure that you just had one of the best meals available downtown.

I suggest: Burrata, Grilled Ciabatta Bread, Pizza Carne. For wine, go rogue: an Aglianaco del sud.

Osteria Marco1453 Larimer Street, Denver, CO 80202

Acqua al 2

The thing about Italian food is that when it’s good, it is so good. I’ve been hearing about Acqua al 2 for months and I’ve walked by it twice a day, every day since July. Finally, I found an occasion (and the funds – thanks, Dad) to make a reservation.

Walking in, I was surprised. The seating area is large and that is something that normally goes against all of my principles when it comes to eating Italian. All of the back-end alley restaurants and family-owned trattorias that I frequented in Italy had limited seating. Never mind. First impressions aren’t always to be trusted.

The second I saw the unsalted bread placed on the table I knew we were in for a treat. Only a proper Florentine restaurant would serve unsalted bread to Americans.

We were seated with a clear view of the kitchen, which I love. We could see the meat searing on the grill and the pasta coming straight out of the pan. We started with the salad sampler. Arugula lightly dressed in olive oil (the good stuff) and balsamic, tossed with cherry tomatoes and walnuts. Melt in your mouth mozzarella bufala accompanied by tomatoes. Finally, a shaved fennel salad. I have never been a fan of fennel, but this, tossed with pine nuts and radish, was by far my favorite.

The pasta sampler arrived next. Five small plates were more than enough and were an excellent representation of the menu. First, we shared fusilli in a creamy spinach sauce. Next, a penne in a creamy red sauce with roasted red pepper. My favorite was the farfalle with porcini mushrooms in a delicious, buttery sauce. It was rich, it was exquisite and the tasting portion was just right. The gnocchi were like pillows; smothered in a mascarpone sauce with radish, which, at first odd, was a perfect juxtaposition. Finally, a longer fusilli in a spicy tomato sauce. The pasta was cooked truly al dente; done the right way, it had a bite and did not disappear on contact.

How could we possibly also have the steak? Oh, right, because there is always room for steak. We opted for the tasting platter again. A New York strip, so simple with hints of peppercorn and dijon mustard. A filet mignon, which I heard is the house favorite, in a blueberry reduction sauce. I loved the filet heavily drizzled in a balsamic reduction. It was crispy and sweet and melted in your mouth.

I didn’t mention the wines. Go red. Always, go red. Super Tuscans pair perfectly.

I suggest: Insalata Finocchio, Topini al Radicchio Rosso, Filetto al Balsamico

Acqua al 2, 212 7th Street SE, Washington, DC, 20003

Menomalé: simply a must

Of all the food in the world, pizza is one of the most simple. We see it presented by the face of Peyton Manning and bubbling with cheese-stuffed crust laden with fruit, but in reality, it is best when made with a handful of quality ingredients. In Italy, pizza is an art form. Pizzaioli know that to make a perfect pizza is a serious study. In Italy, this is common, but to find a true Neapolitan pizza here in the US isn’t easy. I think that Menomalé of DC is the best I’ve had this side of the Atlantic.

Everything about Menomalé is true Italian: the tiny water glasses (no room for ice), the limited seating, and, of course, the wood-fired oven. Go to Menomalé and take some time to enjoy the experience. Their select beers are all great pairings with pizza and they also boast a decent wine selection. Their antipasti platters are standard – meats, cheeses, breads – and you can tell that everything is hand-picked to resemble Italy’s finest. Share the antipasti, enjoy a beer, order a pizza, and then imagine. I’ve spent time in Italy and I’ve made memories around the table. The pizza served by Pizzaiolo Ettore Rusciano makes me nostalgic. Served in whole on specially made plates, the perfect Neapolitan pizza, the one that can be found so effortlessly in Italy, is bursting with the flavors of tomato and mozzarella di bufala. The dough has a bit of charring, but is soft and slightly chewy. The traditional toppings, often representing more than initially considered, are the perfect after note. This is Menomalé. Maybe I’ve been away from Italy for too long, but if I close my eyes, there is no distinction.

Menomalé upholds my love affair with pizza. The whole experience is genuine: the staff is knowledgable, the atmosphere is comfortable and the ingredients embody the best of Italy.

Located in the Brookland neighborhood of Northeast DC, it should not be overlooked. If you’ve been to Italy, it will take you back. If you haven’t, just don’t ask for it sliced.

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 I suggest: Affettati Misti della Casa, the Quattro Stagioni, the Diavola, Nastro Azzurro (draft), Curieux (bottle)

 Menomalé, 2711 12th St, NE, Washington, DC 20018