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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.
Then, of course, there’s the wine list. Ben Mahmoud, who is Tunisian, lights up when he talks about the 49 different types of pinot noirs on site. “It is insane. I’ve never worked anywhere that had this many — the biggest restaurants wouldn’t have more than 12 types,” he said.
He said they have made an effort to build a wine list that suits requests from local residents. A Rosso di Montalcino available by the glass tasted like velvet. “These decanters here,” he said pointing to the back bar, “are really busy.”
The downstairs wine cellar, Ben Mahmoud says, is the restaurant’s gem. “This place is built like a bunker,” he said, cool and climate controlled. Notably, they plan to use the space, which is quiet and lined with shelves of bottles, for private events. He said he’s received requests from congressional staffers to hold fundraisers there.
Removed from the immediate hustle of the Hill and other bars and restaurants, Ninnella is ideal for not just a quiet date, but also a quiet business meeting or policy discussion.
Hill East — the colloquial term for the part of Capitol Hill where Ninnella is located — is about to get a bit busier. New residential developments are in the works including a large-scale plan, termed Reservation 13, that is expected to bring in more apartment complexes near the Anacostia River waterfront.
Brian Flahaven, commissioner of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6B, said he’s encouraged by the retail development in Hill East, as it’s going to improve the quality of life. He says The Pretzel Bakery, on the northeast corner of 15th and D streets Southeast, is a prime example.
“What I tell folks is that the character of the neighborhood isn’t going to change,” he said. “Most of the area is zoned to be residential. But in places where you can have moderate-density apartments or condos, that’s going to bring good things for quality of life.”
Ben Mahmoud himself recently moved into the neighborhood with his girlfriend, who operates much of the front of the house with him at Ninnella. He says for him, and for Simeoni, D.C. is now the place to be.
“In the market, Washington, D.C., is the place to open,” he said. “It was San Francisco; before that it was New York and Chicago. For the last 10 years, all the biggest chefs are here.”