Luke Chesek, left, and Silk play a game of bocce on the upstairs court in Vendetta.
Fans of the now defunct Red Palace were likely saddened to see their local watering hole/alternative music venue go the way of the dodo.
But there’s something to be said for bellying up to the bar at Vendetta (1212 H St. NE), its swankier successor, and losing oneself in the Rat Pack vibe that flows through the mellowed-out establishment.
Restaurateur Joe Englert, who also co-owns several other hospitality joints along the same strip, said the changeover became official earlier this spring. The New Orleans-themed fare and shoulder-to-shoulder rock shows have since given way to a carefully constructed cocktail carte, Italo-American cuisine and indoor bocce courts.
“Bocce makes for quite an addictive pastime. It’s hard to get customers out of the ‘sandbox’ once they enter,” Englert said of the family-friendly hurling pits carved into the first and second floors.
Sporting types certainly seem to enjoy the opportunity to knock one another around from time to time. We watched a father-son duo battle it out in between courses (picking at entrees, bowling a quick set, then sliding back into their chairs for dessert).
Coincidentally, Englert claims the rhythmic clacking of colliding spheres often camouflages the whimpering of unruly children. “The knocking of the bocce balls usually drowns out the kids,” he said.
We prefer the bar’s buzzier distractions.
Pouring It On
The downstairs lounge is modest, accommodating just shy of a dozen guests around an L-shaped counter. A handful of high-tops and cocktail tables provide an outer rim of seating options for those who come to wet their whistles in earnest.
“$5 Peronis?!?! Get out of here!” an imported-beer lover exclaimed one evening after stumbling on the extended happy hour special. (The price has since been shaved to $4.)
Another night, folks camped out for hours, including two pairs of girlfriends who lingered over slowly sipped glasses of wine, buddies going drink for fashionable mixed drink and a married duo casually working their way through a bottle of red wine.
Beverage Director Jimmy Silk is the one who keeps the good times flowing. His tastes range from trendy craft brews (Fat Tire, Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale) and easy-drinking sparklers (they have Montelvini prosecco on draft), to budget-friendly bottles of predominantly Italian wine. There was nothing over $62 (2010 Tuscan chardonnay) during our visits, with most by-the-glass pours hovering in the $8-10 range (2011 Castle Rock Pinot Noir was the outlier at $11).
The signature cocktails, however, are the real show stealers.
Barkeeps shake up everything from woody bourbons to curiously nutty liqueurs, cutting bold stuff with disarming sweeteners, spiking neutral spirits with bitter interlopers and cleverly spicing up everything in between.
The Capecchi was a fast favorite, layering a double shot of Jameson Irish whiskey with McClure’s pure maple syrup, a dash of walnut liqueur and a squeeze of lemon.
“It’s subtle right?” the barkeep asked after my first draw of the citrus-spiked cooler. Englert bills this one as perhaps their most “unusual” drink, but it’s stiff enough to satisfy regular whiskey drinkers looking for a break from the neat routine.
The absolutely lovely Linden Court — combining Kentucky bourbon, herbal liqueur, Madeira and orange bitters — has an almost gourmet coffee feel to it, the bourbon and the amaro bonding into a forceful brew while vanilla sweetens every well-textured sip.
Negronis proved exceptionally tart; orange juice and bitters produce a grapefruit-like pucker, vermouth battles to smooth things out. Meanwhile, junipery English gin rolls around on the back of the tongue.
The biggest surprise was the Monza. Whereas most rum-based beverages smack of pure sugar cane, the accompanying amaretto cloaks this experience in soothing almond notes. Mind you, a hint of spice still swims to the surface every few sips, but it’s a far cry from the cloyingly coconut monstrosities heavy-handed barkeeps have shoved in front of rum drinkers since time immemorial.
According to Englert, the bar actually does amazingly well with Bellinis, fashioned here from prosecco and marinated pear. But both he and one of the bartenders billed the Linden Court as another popular creation.
Per Englert, staff has had to ease some guests into the pleasures of the house made limoncello.
“You have to warn the customers not to underestimate the wallop one of these not-so-mellow shots can pack,” he shared.
And they’re all excited to unveil new creations once seasons start to drastically change. “Hopefully we can start setting things afire now that the colder weather has arrived,” Englert said.
Keeping Things Light
Rather than hop on the family-style bandwagon, Vendetta is sticking with smaller portions and rotating mezze.
Daily specials range from glossy, marinated olives to bite-sized bunches of pickled green beans to seared swordfish filets flanked by pickled carrots and lentil salad.
The main attractions haven’t changed much (a long-standing sausage and peppers dish has been scaled down to a peperonata appetizer plate, chopped sausage optional) since the restaurant opened, although the chefs certainly have; Englert confirmed that opening toque James Figueroa-Perez departed after two months to take a cooking gig in his native Puerto Rico, effectively handing control of the kitchen over to Lawrence Semanyk, who Englert says lived three years abroad in Naples, Italy.
“He loves his family traditional red sauces and smoking his own meats and fishes,” Englert said of Semanyk’s culinary passions.
Englert swears by the signature gnocchi (bathed in walnut pesto) and meaty Napoletano pasta, bolstered as it is by house-smoked brisket, meatballs, sausage and meat sauce. But, at least in our case, the heavy stuff never stuck out as vividly as simpler productions.
An order of broccoli rabe arrabiata was breathtakingly fiery, the tender, oil-slicked greens plainly studded with red pepper flakes and chunks of sauteed garlic.
The fritto misto is fairly generous, lumping together jumbo shrimp (biggest and least breaded of the bunch), chewy baby octopi and buttons of calamari (tiny but abundant). The accompanying fra diavolo has a terrific edge to it, the chunky tomato sauce delivering loads of garlic, onion and red pepper.
Seafood ravioli was a snoozer, the featured proteins effectively washed out by overly aggressive marinara.
Chicken parm hit all the right notes; the comforting standard summoned juicy chicken cutlets stuffed with spinach and draped with stretchy mozzarella. The surrounding pool of herb-laced tomato sauce injects acid into every meaty bite.
Vendetta: 1212 H St. NE; 202-399-3201; vendettadc.com. Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for dinner and late-night dining daily.
Former Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., candidate for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire, holds his hand over his heart during the singing of the national anthem as he waits to take the stage for his town hall campaign rally with Sen. John McCain at the Pinkerton Academy in Derry, N.H., on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014.