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It’s close to 4 p.m. in the middle of the week, during a hot stretch of summer days. At the edge of Lincoln Park, where joggers and dog walkers are circling, the tiny Italian restaurant Ninnella is bustling. The floor is full of wine crates, lobster and octopus are spread in the kitchen, ice is being shuffled into bins and glasses are being wiped clean.
Ninnella opened in February and has experienced a trickle of local Capitol Hill diners, despite the restaurant’s lack of a website and media presence. It’s the intimate feel, the impressive wine list and the homemade foods that have brought in customers, explained both manager Neji Ben Mahmoud, and executive chef Emanuele Simeoni, Italian in his roots and hailing from New York.
Previously occupied by the Park Café, the space was purchased by Italian brothers Angelo and Alessandro Forte. Named after the Fortes’ grandmother, Ninnella serves fresh, seasonal Italian food and now is open for dinner service, Sunday brunch and special events. There is no specific regional focus for the cuisine, Ben Mahmoud said, but rather a focus on the classics: fresh pastas and breads, paired wines, homemade desserts.
Pastas cost just under $20 a plate and entrees range in the high $20s. Daily house-made pastas and fish are the signature dishes. Tiramisu is the mainstay dessert.
Ninnella is part of a broader trend in Washington toward Italian cuisine — Etto and Ghibellina on 14th Street Northwest, Vendetta on H Street Northeast. Acqua Al 2, where Ben Mahmoud worked previously, and Lavagna are newer establishments on Capitol Hill.
Simeoni says he’s aiming for high-end taste and presentation; Ben Mahmoud says he wants comfortable intimacy in the ambiance.
“It’s rustic,” Simeoni says of the cuisine, “but I want my food to look good, not like a trattoria-style restaurant. I try to be as accurate in plating the food as I can because the first thing you are going to see when you sit down is how the plate looks like.”
Appetizers, like grilled baby octopus with an olive tapenade, are small and simple. The octopus tasted like, well, octopus. Pastas are not abounding in seasoning or sauce and are light enough to eat on a 90-degree evening. A recent pasta special featured half a lobster, served with olive oil, garlic and a touch of cognac to finish. Ninnella hopes to stay seasonal with its food; a winter lasagna was prepared with a lamb ragout, butternut squash, tomato sauce and a grana cheese.