Veteran readers of A Pear to Remember know I am not a born foodie, but learning as I cook and write along. Imagine how completely shocked surprised and honored I was to receive an invitation to dine and review Floriana, a longstanding Italian restaurant in DuPont Circle. And they let me bring my Andrew.
Waiting for us at the top of the stairs: Dino Tapper, a third generation restaurant owner, who bought this 1890-built rowhouse from his mother two years ago. Growing up, Dino was the baby bundled in vegetable crates while his mother cooked—a tidbit he shared while greeting outdoor diners. He personally designs renovations for the house, bringing the kitchen downstairs to its original foundation, tearing away false walls to reveal the building’s rustic integrity.
The same might be said for Floriana’s food, rooted in classical traditions. The main floor dining room, a regal red, is impressive and welcoming, apt for the come-as-you-are setting at Floriana. Clean-cut waiters in dark jeans and black shirts bustle past Dino in his sneakers and taxi-yellow fleece, who fills water glasses and shares bread with his guests. Lively jazz overhead animates a room of businessmen and denim-ed duos alike. Our waiter is courteous, knowledgeable; an instant friend.
We began with extraordinary glasses of wine, poured before us from mini carafes resembling laboratory flasks. The 2010 Altos las Hormigas Malbec ($8) for Andrew, a pretty 2009 CMS Hedges ($9) for me. Sitting beneath a chilly air vent made me pass on the array of appealing salad options for the day’s butternut squash soup starter ($8). For Andrew, the tender, fried calamari with peppadews and enticing Sriracha aioli ($10).
My soup, though intriguing in description, was not as alluring as the house’s rustic bread with sweet parsley pesto (to which we returned nearly through dessert). The soup special was presented as walnuts, squash cubes, and single sage leaf in a deep bowl over which our waiter poured the hot puree.
The prospect of squash soup following the final weekend of peaches excited me about autumn produce ahead, though the soup’s simplicity made me wish I had opted for Floriana’s intricate salads.
My generous serving of roasted garlic and rosemary gnocchi ($18) was nestled in just the right amount of tomato and wild mushroom stew. Though I would have much preferred the gnocchi in Floriana’s arugula pesto—a considerable menu debate—each bite of the potato pillows was surprisingly creamy. Floriana makes their pasta in-house, and the gnocchi was the second best I have tasted yet—perhaps better complemented by their pesto.
Andrew’s veal chop ($29) is a challenge to describe in words, as his incessant moans pose problems in the spelling department. The veal chop, served atop roasted Brussels sprouts and fresh apple butter, brought about fits of giggles from the husband I formally believed to be a quiet eater.
The “best cut of meat” he had “ever eaten in his life”, delightfully salty and sweet, was accompanied by blue cheese stuffed dates wrapped in smoked bacon—and proved equally as pleasing. He began naming all the loved ones in his life, minus his vegetarian wife, who he wished could share this meat-filled moment. Vegetarians like myself have no trouble finding ample, varied options at Floriana, though I might beg the chef to consider offering his roasted brussel sprouts as a regular side dish. Don’t forget the apple butter, Chef.
Among the four dessert options, Andrew chose the housemade cheesecake with strawberries, as I dared for the Nutella-almond ravioli. I am not a cheesecake eater when there is any possibility of chocolate or cake to be had, but I would venture back to Floriana for this cheesecake alone; its texture and flavor impeccable. My Nutella experimentation, with bananas, chocolate sauce and vanilla gelato was thick, fried pastry with little filling. The crunchy pool of cinnamon-sugar and banana quarters made me think this might be a fun late-night diner dessert, but a misfit for the Floriana’s elegance.
Guests visiting this home should be aware of steep winding steps to the second floor bathroom. There are a number of lovely qualities about Floriana: the historical house, warm staff, and sophistication without pretention. In addition, varied, moderately-priced food and wine selections all of high caliber. For a menu so concise, it’s unfortunate to leave with the lingering feeling I did not make the best selections. Next time, I would return to sit outdoors with friends and sangria. Yet it is clear there are many delights to be found in a restaurant that achieves authentic character through and through.
Floriana Restaurant 1602 17 St. NW, Washington DC, 20009 202.667.5937 http://florianarestaurant.com/