Published On: Fri, Dec 1st, 2023

Claudio’s Table review: Expert versions of Italian classics

Claudio’s Table review: Expert versions of Italian classics
Claudio’s Table review: Expert versions of Italian classics

As he was mulling a name for his second restaurant in the Palisades, Claudio Pirollo knew he didn’t want to repeat the mistake he says he made with his first place, the Belgian-themed Et Voila!

For starters, a lot of people couldn’t pronounce Et Voila! (Say ay-vwah-LAH.) But the chef also wanted to hedge his bets. By naming his new place Claudio’s Table, he could switch cuisines if diners didn’t take to his proposed Italian.

People seem to like what he’s doing with pasta and pizza. At least in the early life of the restaurant, the dining room looks like Black Friday at the mall; no matter the day of the week, there’s a crush of interest in the 70 or so seats. You’ll want to make reservations. And maybe bring earplugs and some patience.

The starters are things you’ll recognize — nice for some, a yawn for adventure seekers — and they thrill once they land on the table. You’ve probably had arancini before. But few kitchens make the balls of fried rice as light as this one. While Pirollo dips the arancini in an egg wash and breads them, he doesn’t use flour, so what you get when you bite is crunch followed by the taste of saffron rice trailed by smoked mozzarella in the center of each delicate orb. What looks like newly fallen snow on top is filings of pecorino.

Vitello tonnato — cold, sliced veal dappled with tuna sauce — is the pink of “Barbie” and trendy interiors this year. The classic pairing has the lightest dressing imaginable, a feat made possible by passing tuna, anchovies, mayonnaise, capers and wine through a fine-mesh sieve to aerate the combination. Simpler, but just as seductive, are twigs of fried bread served with kerchiefs of prosciutto, glossed with olive oil: an elegant companion to whatever drink you might select from the bar. Salads (romaine or arugula) are routine and small enough to qualify as kid-size.

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The oven in the back, its dome as shiny as freshly minted pennies, whets an appetite for pizza, made with ultrafine double-zero flour from Italy, which gives the crust its chew and crispness, then baked in 700-degree heat. A topping of broccoli rabe and sweet sausage is my sweet spot.

The chef, 49, whose résumé includes the much-missed Montmartre and cooking for the Irish ambassador, has been turning out mussels and fries so long at Et Voila!, it’s easy to forget he holds an Italian passport. Pirollo was born in Belgium to Italian parents, importers who ran a boutique food shop. As a child, he and his brother spent summers with their grandfather in Monte Cassino, southeast of Rome. His sidekick in the open kitchen at Claudio’s Table is Alessandro Pirovano, 31, a native of Monza, Italy, near Milan. The younger chef comes to the project from the much-admired Fiola, where he served as executive sous chef for four years.

Their pastas in particular embrace the Italian idea of simplicity. Tuck into cavatelli scattered with peas and toasted hazelnuts, the nut whose earthy flavor always transports me to Europe, and fusilli tossed with cracked black pepper and aged grana padano, a satisfying study in minimalism. Gnocchi, little clouds of potato, egg yolk and semolina, get a hot red backdrop of tomato sauce, garlic, basil and dollops of molten mozzarella — a soothing concert orchestrated from a handful of notes. I’m all for al dente pasta, but one night’s spaghetti with clams needed more time in hot water. There’s slightly underdone (a good thing), and then there’s unwelcome resistance.

The spare, clean-lined interior, formerly home to the casual DC Boathouse, would look at home in California. Light pours through the front windows and a skylight. Burnt-orange stools front the exhibition kitchen, and the banquettes are the green-yellow of lemongrass. Pirollo says he likes being watched — and watching. “I get to see everything that’s going on,” he says, then mentions the challenge of finding experienced servers. Eventually, he wants to create a “table” — space, really — from the four counter seats closest to where he works in the kitchen and offer a four-course tasting menu featuring dishes that aren’t on the standing list.

Thursday and Friday tend to be when the kitchen offers osso buco as a special. If you like veal that’s been braised in tomato sauce and veal demi-glace, low and slow, you’ll want to make a date with it. The meat is tender and luscious, sweet with minced carrots and staged atop risotto, golden and fragrant with saffron and finished with little panes of cheese. Two great tastes on one plate, and a foil to increasingly chilly temperatures. The other prize in the meat department is marinated pork lapped with a lovely reduction of red wine, veal stock and sage, carved into slices and heaped with tangy red cabbage. I like the lamb with subtly sweet caponata, too, but the entree tastes like an also-ran in comparison with the other meats.

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Grilled branzino splayed over Swiss chard and ringed with a brown sauce wouldn’t win a beauty contest, but the combination is terrific. The fish picks up flavor from a thin, green coat of capers, mint, basil and thyme, and the chard is elevated with garlic, butter and itty-bitty croutons. As for the sauce, salsa di pane, it’s made with toasted sourdough bread, cooked down with shallots and chicken broth, a delicious case for using leftovers (bread).

Cannoli are filled with sheep milk ricotta to order, garnished with candied orange, chocolate pearls or pistachios, and shatter agreeably when teeth meet shell. The market demands tiramisu on an Italian menu, and Claudio’s Table gives it to us, a light recipe incorporating whipped mascarpone and strong espresso, passed down from the owner’s mother. So, yes, make room for something sweet.

I figured Claudio’s Table would be like the beloved Et Voila!, just with more olive oil than butter. But the service at the newcomer is less breezy and efficient and the noise is more distracting, an issue the owner recently addressed by installing soundproofing. That hasn’t stopped swarms of interest in the place, one of too few places to eat in a moneyed neighborhood. Credit the talent of two chefs and the power of thoughtful food.

5441 MacArthur Blvd. NW. 202-920-7500. Open for indoor dining, delivery and takeout 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, noon to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, noon to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday and noon to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday. Prices: appetizers $12 to $23, main courses $22 to $40. Sound check: 82 decibels/Extremely loud. Accessibility: No barriers to entry; ADA-compliant restrooms.

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