Osteria da Nino, Shirlington

Osteria da Nino, not Samuel Beckett’s Tavern, is the best restaurant in Shirlington.

First, let me add that I went back to Samuel Beckett’s Tavern for a late supper the other evening, and only the bar menu was available. Starting off with a New Belgium Shift Lager, a respectable session beer that’s as good as anything I’ve found at Samuel Beckett’s, I went straight for the 800-pound gorilla that I’ve always avoided ordering here: Sam’s Lamb Burger ($14), fresh ground lamb mixed with spices, and topped off with Cashel blue cheese, served with hand-cut chips and lettuce, tomato, and onion on a sesame-seed roll. This burger was huge – probably 10-12 ounces, cooked to a perfect medium-rare, and came positively slathered with a Cashel blue cheese sauce (I have visited the Cashel farm in Ireland, adore this cheese, and had every reason to be “pulling for” this sauce, but this was just gloppy and gross); the tub of ketchup and extremely garlicky mayonnaise for my fries went completely untouched (except for a fingertip-taste of the mayonnaise to gage the garlic). This sandwich was over-the-top, and while the lamb was of good quality (how often do you see such a large lamb-burger topped with Cashel blue?), it was simply too much gook – I ended up opening up my roll, scraping off the sauce, and eating the meat alone. Many people order this sandwich, and I suspect many people like it, but it’s just too much for me, and I’ll stick with more refined cooking here the next time I come. Onward!

I took hopsing’s post about Osteria da Nino very seriously when I read it, and kidnapped my young dining companion last night, smuggling him into Shirlington – Osteria da Nino is very close to Carlyle, but since it’s one building off of “the strip,” it was completely dead. This is a restaurant you have to know about in order to find it, and it’s going to need to get some publicity out there in order to succeed, especially at dinnertime. And succeed it should, because right now there’s nothing else this good in all of Shirlington. The Beef Wellington I had the other night at Samuel Beckett’s was certainly right up there, but that was a daily special, and I’m unconvinced Beckett’s can produce cooking of that high level of quality when the pub is crowded; perhaps it can.

I started off with a glass of Pinot Grigio ($8) as we waited for our two appetizers to split, and as soon as they hit the table, I knew we had found what has been missing from Shirlington for so long with Osteria da Nino – a somewhat spacious, spartan restaurant that could use a bit of warmth and interior design to bring together the cold-feeling hard surfaces into something resembling, dare I say, the product of a woman’s touch.

Fritto Misto ($12) was a large cone containing some unusual and delicious fried items: shrimp, salmon, and fennel (the fennel being the only miss, being cut too large and not cooked quite long enough) – still, this was an excellent rendition of fritto misto that is well-worth ordering. Seasoned perfectly by itself, it did not need the garlic-curry mayonnaise dipping sauce it came with, but we used it in moderation anyway. Delicious, and a good contrast to our Insalata Burrata ($10), a fantastic combination of burrata, cherry tomatoes, plums, nectarines, and a bit of pesto – I’m not sure where the chef got this recipe from, but it works, and it works brilliantly. If this dish, or a variation of it, is on the menu, order it.

Garganelli con ragù di maiale ($17) was a good-sized bowl of piping hot garganelli pasta, with Papa Weever Farms pork ragu, fennel, spices, gremmalata, parmesan, and baby arugula. There was nothing surprising about this dish (unlike with the burrata), but it was satisfying, and a well-conceived foil to the Filetto di Branzino ($24) which came with a fascinating brick-sized rectangle of Sicilian tahboli (yes, it’s the same thing you’ll get in a Lebanese restaurant, except with pomegranates), arrabiatta sauce, and crispy faro. The sea bass was cooked by someone who knew what they were doing, with its skin crisped just the way you wanted it.

“The Rules” of being a restaurant critic say you aren’t supposed to judge a restaurant after one visit, but I’ve never been one to follow rules. This is a very exciting, promising restaurant, and is so much better than anything I’ve ever had in Shirlington (Beef Wellington notwithstanding) that I’m making a beeline in its direction the next time I head down S. Quincy Street.

Parking is plentiful in a lot just behind the restaurant.

An important addendum: I got a text message from someone who saw this, warning me that their first visit to Osteria da Nino was a wonderful surprise; their second visit had more inconsistencies. Doesn’t it figure that the *only* time I ever question critics’ standards, is the time I get called out for possibly jumping the gun! 🙂 Anyway, I’m not at liberty to go into detail, but you’ll probably read more about this later.

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