by leslie quander wooldridge| February 28, 2014 |
Food & Drink
Georgetown’s Rialto makes fresh ingredients the star of its shareable dishes, including the caprese salad, seared diver scallops, and braised lamb shank with polenta.
As I sit at a table at Rialto in Georgetown, a recording of Nat King Cole singing “When I Fall in Love” plays in the cozy space. Little do I know that I am about to fall for this new eatery specializing in shareable small plates—a popular dining trend in Washington, but not one typically seen with Italian cuisine.
As more classic songs play throughout the restaurant’s atrium, small plates begin to appear in the capable hands of our server: caponata, a tasty eggplant ragoût topped with toasted pine nuts; a refreshing panzanella salad made up of bread, red onions, and a fresh balsamic vinaigrette; and frutti di mare, an addictive seafood medley featuring mussels and shrimp seasoned in the Italian way with a light touch of citrus vinaigrette.
The menu focuses on simple, refined dishes.
Executive Chef Ryan Fichter, a Howard County, Maryland, native, helms the inventive kitchen at this stylish eatery. A fan of good food since childhood (“Instead of watching cartoons, I was watching cooking shows,” he admits when he stops by my table), he went on to attend the Culinary Institute of America. He then had stints at Clyde’s and Smith & Wollensky, and worked in Hawaii before returning to DC and eventually opening Rialto.
To source the food for his menu, he attended food expos, including the Fancy Food Show in New York, to connect with purveyors of Italian products. “I must have tried 200 cheeses,” he says, “until I found the ones I liked.” His efforts paid off: From the 200 varieties he tasted, he whittled his selections down to about nine or 10, including mozzarella (of course), along with a semisoft cow’s milk Sottocenere and a sweet yet delicate Casatica di Bufala made from water buffalo milk.
But, while the cheese is an important piece of this Italian eatery, especially for classic Neapolitan pizza, vegetables are important as well—maybe even more so. They shine not only in salads and vegetarian dishes, but they even add an unexpected zap of fresh flavor to seafood and pasta plates. The capesante, for instance—seared diver scallops in a balsamic reduction served with fresh lentils and spinach—are perfection.
Executive Chef Ryan Fichter prepares Rialto’s freshly baked bread.
“It’s a lost art, vegetable cookery,” Fichter says, outfitted in his white chef’s coat during his short break from the kitchen. He says the key to preparing vegetables that diners actually enjoy is the preparation—using proper cooking techniques, blanching foods, not masking flavors with heavy sauces,” he explains. “It’s using just a little bit of butter or a little bit of olive oil, a touch of salt and some garlic, or a splash of lemon juice.”
Opened by DC restaurateurs Ben Kirane, Moe Idressi, and Joe Idressi, Rialto is intended to be a place where diners can enjoy Italian cuisine and wine in a contemporary setting. “We decided to open Rialto because of a combination of our love of good Italian food, along with the wish of bringing the Georgetown area an upscale option that features both traditional and contemporary flavors from the region,” explains Joe Idressi.
And in addition to the culinary offerings, the décor of Rialto is quite extraordinary. The space, formerly known as The Guards Restaurant, features dark hardwood floors, an airy atrium, strong wooden tables surrounded by luxe leather chairs, and even a modern fire ribbon that crackles near the carefully crafted fireplaces dotting the space.
The décor reflects the opulence of historic Venice.
Of course, though the restaurant looks very cool—I didn’t even mention the powder room featuring floor-to-ceiling leopard-print tiles or the crescent bar—the cuisine is the star. The branzino, for instance, has perfectly crisp skin and is served with rotating fresh vegetables and caramelized lemon. And even the desserts somehow feel light and fresh. The ravioli di cioccolato—fried chocolate hazelnut ravioli with zabaglione cream sauce—is not to be missed. And the zeppole—warm, fried Italian doughnuts served with raspberry jam—were like little fritters topped with heaven. That is, if heaven were made up of just-sweet-enough powdered sugar.
“To me, Italian food is all about fresh ingredients, letting the food shine,” Fichter concludes, saying that his time at the restaurant—long hours notwithstanding—never feels like work. “The key to good food is good ingredients. Every dish is kind of a piece of my soul.” 2915 M Street NW, 202-337-1571