Casa Nonna, Dupont Circle

The first thing I noticed the other evening when I opened the menu at Casa Nonna made my jaw drop: a $28 plate of Spaghetti Pomodoro staring me in the face.

That would be $28 for a platter of dried (not fresh) pasta with tomato sauce.

Yes, the pastas at Casa Nonna are meant to be eaten “family style,” and served in the center of the table, so it works out to much less money per person, but … spare me.

This menu appears (to my eyes) to be professionally designed so that this is the very first thing to catch your eye when you open it – I wonder why.

And I also wonder why the New York-based BLT chain has refused to put its name on Casa Nonna. And again, I wonder why they chose to open the first branch in Washington, DC, and are shortly opening a second branch in New York City (as opposed to the other way around). Think about these, and come to your own conclusions.

The other evening I stopped in for the third time, and enjoyed a Brooklyn Brewery Pennant Ale ($7 on draft) while scanning the menu, not at all liking what I was seeing. But I was intrigued by the Wood Roasted Mortadella ($9) which came in thin rectangular prisms, not circles, and was served with a basket containing three pieces of warm, heavy, bread stuffed with a little Horta-tunnel of butter, parsley, and garlic.

As I sat there, nibbling on the dense bread, and picking the few pieces of mortadella out from the pan (choosing to leave behind the boring slices of red onion), I realized I’d essentially paid $16 for a mediocre fried bologna sandwich and a beer.

This enormous restaurant was extremely empty on Monday evening, but the kitchen was staying open until 11 PM (remember when Sette Osteria, up the street, opened and intended for their kitchen to stay open late every single evening; that didn’t last long (and Sette Osteria has much better pizzas than Casa Nonna for the late-night crowd)).

I want to like Casa Nonna because the BLT chain has done some good work in the past (with BLT Steak when it first opened, for example), and mainly because they hired Amy Brandwein to run the kitchen. But ultimately, I don’t see one talented local cook being able to save a concept that seems oddly outdated and out of place for the area – this has worked at Maggiano’s in Tysons Corner very well (which Casa Nonna reminds me of very much), but I just don’t see the family dining concept being able to work in South Dupont on such a large scale.

Then again, look at Carmine’s, which is inexplicably packed (for now), and Buca di Beppo seems to be humming along also, so maybe I’m wrong. All four of these restaurants are direct competitors, and don’t think otherwise. Il Mulino has mercifully closed, but along with the opening of Cuba Libre and P J Clarke’s, Casa Nonna seems on schedule to make 2010 perhaps the most damaging year for Washington DC (in terms of culinary advancement) that I can remember.

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