I’m not going to insult your desire to eat Italian food while visiting Washington D.C. Rather, I understand it. And yes, D.C. Chowhounds, Americans certainly do go to McDonalds when they are in Italy. Also, some otherwise perfectly respectable chowhounds prefer New York style pizza to Italian.
Giovanniroma, so you will understand the background for my advice I will tell you that I spend several weeks a year in Northern Lazio, Toscana, and Umbria. At home, I cook only that style of cuisine, and I have received sincere complimenti from Italian friends who live in the aforesaid regions. I’m not going to be much good at giving recommendations for Italian restaurants here. We seldom eat Italian food in restaurants here because it is never as good as at home. My husband and I always marvel how in Italy, a meal in a random restaurant will be very good at least 90% of the time. Here in the U.S., 90% of the time, it will not.
That said, I have some advice. If you do eat Italian food while here, prepare to be 1) disappointed in your meal; 2) outraged at the price; 3) shocked at the portion size.
Part of the reason that Italian food here is not that good and/or is very expensive is quality of ingredients. Our industrial methods of agriculture result in significantly lower quality of food. It’s possible to obtain food that is properly raised, but it costs more. When food is prepared with the standard quality that is available, it isn’t very good. When chef’s care enough to seek out quality ingredients, it costs significantly more. I don’t mean ingredients such as truffles, but rather simple things such as good pork, beef, chickens, fish, shellfish, vegetables, mushrooms, and even flour. You will have to pay a considerable amount here for a meal that would be only passable in a country trattoria in Italy. You are lucky that the euro-dollar exchange is in your favor.
American’s aren’t used to eating both a primo and a secondo, but instead will eat one or the other as an “entrée.” Thus, portions (even in most Italian restaurants) are sized accordingly. Some restaurants even serve pasta, particularly spaghetti, as a side dish (or contorno) with a meat dish. Hopefully, you can steer clear of this class of restaurant.
Some specific advice:
Never eat the pasta. I’ve learned this philosophy from an Italian friend who has lived here a number of years. I sometimes relent and order stuffed pasta since I make it rarely. Most of the time, I wish I hadn’t. Pasta asciutta here is overcooked; pasta al’uova doesn’t have the silky texture it should; both kinds are typically served with too much sauce. Cream sauces are particularly bad, since they seldom are made here by cooking cream down to the correct consistency but instead by thickening a mixture of milk and cream with flour.
Risotto typically isn’t much better, even when it is “made to order.” It seldom has the right texture.
I do not recommend the suppli at Two Amys. Trust me, you will be disappointed. They are very heavy and nothing like good suppli al telefono in Rome or arancini in the south. The pizza is fine if you are missing pizza, but if you aren’t here for long, simply wait until you return home.
Go to restaurants that are Italian-owned or have an Italian chef. First, they are more likely to prepare the food properly. Further, they are more likely to have Italian-speaking wait staff. Ask for Italian speakers even if your English is fluent. If there aren’t Italian speakers, you’ll probably end up talking to the maitre d’ or even the chef. In such case, the kitchen is more likely to prepare something correctly for a fellow Italian. I do this myself sometimes, even though I am an American. Although it’s not generally favored by critics or many on this board, I’ve had some good meals at Spezie (mentioned above by another poster)—probably from chattering away with the maitre d’ and waiters. Another poster mentioned d’Acqua. One of the chef-owners is Francesco Ricchi. His family owns, or owned, a restaurant outside of Firenze. When he first opened a restaurant here of the same name, I Ricchi, I became an immediate fan. At the time, it was the only restaurant in Washington to have authentic Tuscan food. His cooking in two subsequent restaurants was excellent. However, do not go to I Ricchi. Francesco is no longer involved, and it is no longer even acceptable, at least in my opinion. And it is very overpriced. I haven’t been to his newest restaurant, but it is certainly worth a try—Rome being midway between Firenze and Napoli. Other Italians that come to mind are Roberto Donna at Bebo Trattoria, Luigi Diotaiuti (a Tuscano) at al Tiramisu (also mentioned above), and Enzo Farginone at Teatro Goldoni. I have had good meals, although expensive, in all of these. You should do fine, as long as you let them know what you want.
Be extra wary of seafood. It is very unlikely to be anywhere near as good as what you are used to in Italy. In most cases, it is out of the water much longer and/or is frozen. Even the same species, freshly caught, will be different. A case in point is swordfish, which is much fattier here, coming from colder waters. A Sicilian friend can not bear to eat even the best swordfish here.
Black Salt is probably the best place to try seafood. They are very careful about quality, and I buy my fish and shellfish from a market associated with the restaurant. In general, the food in the restaurant is very good. If your interest is in trying American seafood, ask the waiter about what is local; they also import Mediterranean seafood, mostly from Greece. You can typically get good oysters from around the U.S., as well as locally-caught fish and other shellfish.
Hook has recently changed chefs, so I can’t comment about how that might be. Another Washington D.C. standby for seafood is Kinkead’s. If you go there, order the simplest preparations; many preparations are overwhelmed with too many ingredients and flavors. A very American dish available is fried whole clams.
It’s not worth going to a Washington D.C. steak restaurant, although you might receive some recommendations for this. Most of them are vastly overpriced, and (even at the less expensive, local favorite called Ray’s the Steaks) you won’t have a steak that anywhere near approaches a fiorentina from real chianina beef.
Give some thought to eating cuisines here that you don’t have in Rome or that may be better here because we have a larger ethnic population. For some of these, you might have to leave Washington proper and venture to the suburbs, but it may be worth it. Examples are Thai, Burmese, Korean, Vietnamese, Salvadorean, Peruvian, and Bolivian. We have some good Middle Eastern restaurants, but perhaps not better than what is available in Rome. The same for Indian cuisine. I suspect it is possible to get better Chinese food here than in Rome, but we would have to give you specific recommendations, as most Chinese restaurants in fact cater to American tastes. We can give you recommendations for any of the above in suburbs that would be easy to reach.
I hope this is helpful.
In general, I agree with others that the food in italy is hard to find in DC. That said, I do have one exception. It's called Al Tiramisu. It's on P & 21st in N.W. DC near Dupont Circle. Their risotto is EXCELLENT (made to order --- it'll take 20 minutes). I usually get the porchini one, but sometimes they also have a lobster risotto and truffle risotto. I was vacationing in Rome with my husband and we went to a restaurant by the Trevi Fountain and got risotto --- just to compare --- and Al Tiramisu held up to it. They also fly in fresh fish everyday, tho I have never gotten it (it's just grilled --- can grill fish at home!). I love their lamb and duck dish and my husband loves their veal stuffed with figs (most of these are on the nightly specials). Their desserts however, are disappointing (even tho they are called Al Tiramisu), so I'd just fill up on everything else.
If you end up going here, please post your feedbacks to this thread. I am curious how someone who is from Italy feels about it (vs me who just went to Italy on vacation and tried a restaurant in random).
I wonder if Americans go out of their way to eat American food when they're in Rome. I would hope not.
Get the four-piece fried fish sandwich at Horace & Dickies. Authentic DC street food. Nothing like a good Roman fry but still tasty, and at $5 it's still enough for two people.
Horace & Dickie's Seafood
809 12th St NE, Washington, DC 20002
Elyssa is right. I was in Rome this summer, there is nothing here in DC that will top what you have in Rome. That said, there are a few places that come close:
D'Acqua in downtown DC is my current favorite (chef is from Napoli). It is upper end (not trattoria style or price). The seafood is gorgeous, so perhaps that's a 2-for-1 for you.
if you want pizza that is a good approximation of Italian versions, 2 Amy's on Macomb is good (plus they have suppli)
My Roman friend always liked the food at Spezie, also downtown DC on L Street.
It depends on what kind of Italian food you are looking for - give us some more info and we can try to point in the right direction.
As to seafood, Blacksalt on Macarthur Blvd is excellent, though pricey. You will need a reservation. If you want to see big American restaurant in action, Oceanaire in downtown can be fun.
But I would eat American! (DC is blessed with lots of takes on American style food:
for a nice evening, try Vidalia, Acadiana or Olives
If I lived in Rome, Italy, I wouldn't be trying to eat Italian food in DC. While I enjoy Filomena, and hear that Tosca and some of the higher-end Italian restaurants are good, they don't in any way stand up to true Italian food from Italy.
For seafood I really like Hook in Georgetown. For a Belgium take on seafood, especially mussels go to Brasserie Beck. I also hear good things about Blacksalt, but personally have never been.