Dining: La Carbonara

Shaw’s Take on the Leisure and Comfort of Italy

by: Monica F. Jacobe

La Carbonara, nestled along Ninth Street just below U, is a charming Italian eatery opened last year by an Ethiopian couple, Fikru and Tsegereda Bekele. Of course, this is a DC neighborhood known for its many wonderful Ethiopian restaurants, but the pasta, pizza and proteins cooked in this kitchen show a clear love of Italian cuisine and a gift for preparing it. (A little bird told me Fikru lived and learned to cook in Italy, and my mouth was not at all surprised by the news.)

Along the street, you can find La Carbonara by its black awning and blue and red LED “open” sign, but elegant wood and brick accented by soft lighting greet you inside. Then, the friendly staff greets you with a smile and a good seat. This space is put together so that no table is a bad one; the right amount of elbow room all around. On a quiet night, the window tables feel especially intimate, but even on a crowded weekend, noise doesn’t overwhelm any table.

Once ensconced, diners are offered crusty bread given a quick flick of Italian parsley, accompanied by small, white dishes filled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. After enjoying the image of the round ball of vinegar at the center of the square plate, dredging a bit of the bread through is more than worth it. The bright flavor wakes up the palate and prepares it for the coming delicious meal.

The wine list at La Carbonara, while not necessarily studded with rare gems, is both inexpensive and serviceable. When the house red was ordered by one of my dining companions, a bright and fruity cabernet arrived in a generous pour. My own request for the house pinot grigio was equally generous and tasty, and you can’t beat that for $5.50 each. Several other by-the-glass selections were delightful, but my favorite was the half bottle of Ruffino Chianti, perfect for a weeknight dinner for two.

What, exactly, might that dinner consist of? Well, the long menu at La Carbonara is fun to navigate and never produced a bad meal during my visits. However, it is worth noting that the occasional dish arrives that isn’t quite what you ordered or was never ordered at all. I suspect varying American accents and fast English consisting of many similar sounding words are the primary causes. I have a sense of humor about these things, though some diners don’t, and as every dish I sampled here was excellent, there is little to fear – save dietary restrictions, of course.

One happy accident that arrived one evening, ordered by no one at my table, was the bruschetta. The aroma of fresh garlic emanating from the crusty slices topped with chopped tomatoes made me certain it was a good thing, however, and it was. It was an excellent complement to the fried calamari we did order, which arrived crisp and salty accompanied by a marinara leaning to the sweet side. It was in this pairing that I learned that La Carbonara is a place where a few ingredients are used well and variously to create great food.

Salads out of this kitchen – where everything but the pasta dough and the gelato is made from scratch – are more than starters to be hurried through. The caprese salad – standard in DC, even outside Italian eateries – arrives with a few gorgeous swirls of basil pesto in place of plain leaves. The Caesar salad, which is offered plain or with chicken or shrimp, is something I usually avoid in fear of goopy dressing and limp leaves, but La Carbonara’s version arrives as carefully chopped romaine tossed with Caesar dressing made as it should be with citrus ahead of a little creaminess and the salt of anchovies binding it together. It has been a long time since I found such a dressing outside of a home kitchen, but as this restaurant is all about home cooking and the experience of a meal, this should be no surprise.

Those same anchovies appear atop one of my favorite pizzas. The “pizza alla verdura” arrives with two kinds of sweet peppers, mushrooms, onion, sliced black olives, broccoli and those anchovies, along with the expected cheese and tomato sauce. The slightly bitter flavor of broccoli roasted in the brick oven coupled with the salty anchovies was an excellent match, and the crust and sauce (the one served with calamari) here aren’t designed to drawn attention to themselves but to present the toppings. Another unusual combination is the “pizza quarto stagioni,” featuring prosciutto, anchovies, olives and a sliced, boiled egg. Again, delicious.

The pasta dishes that fill most of the menu space here are also worth some experimentation, though the classics are exceptionally prepared comfort food. The lasagna, made with a rich and flavorful Bolognese sauce, was a hit with more than one of my dining companions, and this same sauce appears over simple angel hair pasta as well. I fell in love with one of the two pasta primavera options, both of which are far more complex and interesting than most dishes earning that name these days. They are made with delicious linguini and different options for sauce and veggies. My favorite features mushrooms, olives and tomatoes, and despite the menu listing of “creamy sauce,” you will have none of the nightmares of bland cheese sauces here. In fact, I asked for a sprinkle of parmesan and watched it melt over the steaming noodles and cling to my fork as I ate – the perfect addition to this already excellent dish.

Meat dishes on this menu are many and varied, but veal may be the standout. You can try it in a tortellini soup: bite-sized pasta bundles filled with perfectly spiced meat floating in a delicate broth. However, its main course options put the tender veal center stage. The veal parmesan, a classic dish, is improved here because of the care of the kitchen. Super-thin veal cutlets are hand-breaded and not overwhelmed by sauce or cheese. The side of spaghetti is tossed with a red sauce with a little bit of spice. The “arrosto di vittello” is veal covered in that same trio of mushrooms, olives and tomatoes found throughout the menu, and the tender meat is accompanied by crispy and delicious roasted potatoes.

If you aren’t a veal person, the “bistecca alla fiorentina” may be for you. This beef steak arrives tender and delicious with potatoes. At my table, it also arrived medium to medium-well, though no one asked in advance how it should be cooked. If you have strong feelings on this, ask for it a certain way, but do remember my note above: it will be tasty, though not necessarily as ordered.

Offerings from the sea at La Carbonara are very good bets and include pasta dishes like linguine and clams and a whole filleted trout covered in sautéed mushrooms, olives and tomatoes. However, the standout is undoubtedly the salmon fillet. In this dish, a good-sized portion of fish arrives with delicately crisped edges and a lemon butter sauce that contains more than a sprinkle of capers. Those same delicious potatoes come with it. Even after starters, I couldn’t leave one bite of this dish uneaten, joyfully dipping each tender morsel in this delightful sauce.

Of the desserts, my favorites are the cheesecake and the gelato. The crust on the cheesecake is appropriately soft and flaky, and the sauces across the top more than make up for my usual love of fruit with this dish. My table fought over every bite. As for ice cream, I wasn’t willing to share. Imported from Italy, this end-of-meal treat is a standout in vanilla and chocolate and surprisingly good in the unusual cherry. Ordering two together will give you a great flavor combination.

La Carbonara is a truly fine addition to Shaw, as home cooking combines with appropriate and appreciative leisure. This isn’t a place to hurry up and eat, but instead a place to slow down and enjoy a menu where the classic and the unusual are both extraordinary.(originally published in Hill Rag on June 2008)

La Carbonara is located at 1926 Ninth St. NW in the midst of DC’s Shaw neighborhood. You can find out more at their website http://www.lacarbonara.net/. Call 202-232-7505 for hours and events.