I had a quiet lunch with a friend at Centrolina two weeks after it opened, just before it became the hottest ticket in town following a positive first look by The Washington Post’s restaurant critic. The seasonal, multi–region Italian restaurant is situated in the new, high–end CityCenterDC development. While the restaurant’s interior is airy and clean, the space exudes warmth from the open kitchen, wood detailing and firewood neatly stacked at the entrance.
Centrolina is Chef Amy Brandwein’s first standalone, independent venture. The space is divided into a restaurant, with some comfortable booths stretched along the wall, to the left as you enter, and a private dining room off the main drag. It also houses a bar with a friendly staff and a marketplace with fresh produce, elusive Italian imports and delicate, freshly made pastas. Rounding it all out, you’ll find an espresso bar at the opposite end of the restaurant that offers house-made pastries.
Brandwein studied at L’Academie de Cuisine and worked over a decade under the tutelage of famous DC chefs and kitchens, like Roberto Donna of the now-defunct Galileo. Yet her food doesn’t feel like an extension of those establishments, but rather a departure, a refreshing reinvention of Italian fare, with her unique, “simple yet refined” touch, as my lunch companion, Jeanne Wang, put it.
She nodded in agreement with this characterization while qualifying that “the techniques are the same techniques I’ve learned and used over the years.” The food “is lighter, just the way I like to eat,” she adds.
Brandwein’s food philosophy and gifted hand in the kitchen comes through in her dishes. The lamb ragù pappardelle was super flavorful, with the handmade pasta so dainty and the lamb cooked to “falling off the bone” perfection. The funghi antipasto of wood-roasted morel and porcini mushrooms and gnocchi alla romana is a dish I want to have at every meal. The fluffy gnocchi was the best I have had in years, if not decades, and the outstanding mushrooms were abundant.
The menu changes frequently and revolves around what’s seasonally available, while highlighting different regions of Italy. Brandwein, an Irish–American native of northern Virginia who married into a practicing Reform Jewish family while she was still in culinary school, has, over the years, curated menus for the Jewish holidays, especially for Passover. (Her participation in the Jewish Food Experience®’s Passover 2015 Demo Series and contribution of a recipe to the top 10 was therefore only natural.)
Her interest in Italian-Jewish cooking was sparked by a visit to the ghetto in Rome in 2010 while vacationing. Upon her return, she delved into The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews, volumes I and II, by Edda Servi Machlin to further educate herself.
I was stunned, for example, to learn from her that there are many different variations of carciofi alla giudia, Roman–Jewish fried artichokes, including one of marinated braised artichokes with mint, which she has served as part of her Jewish holiday menus at past restaurants. I, for one, hope to see this dish at Centrolina next Passover.
When I asked about the differences between how Irish Americans and Jewish Americans celebrate the holidays, Brandwein shared, “Actually there is an unmistakable difference…while during the Irish–American holidays we come to expect certain traditional foods at the table, the foods aren’t as symbolic or as much an integral part of the holiday ritual as they are with the Jewish holiday traditions.”
Naturally, we could not leave Centrolina without a dessert from talented pastry chef Jennifer Costa. Female chefs and pastry chefs, not to mention restaurant owners, are few and far between, and gender in restaurant kitchens is an issue that Brandwein has brought to light.
For dessert we picked the decadent “chocolate biscotto with cherry gelee, chocolate mousse and chocolate decoration with chocolate gelato sitting on cocoa nibs,” a masterfully constructed feast for all senses.
Among the prepared foods you can carry out, there are not only freshly made pastas, but also eggplant parmesan, caponata and soups (including, on the day we went, a fennel one that looked mighty tempting!). Nearby, quail eggs stand next to the morels and, when available, garlic scapes, as well as marinated anchovies in a glass jar that have never looked this good, nor been so neatly packed.
Ah, and there’s even that familiar hummus next to the pesto, albeit an oddity among the carefully curated Italian groceries.
Centrolina, 202-898-2426, 974 Palmer Alley, NW, Washington, DC, Lunch: Monday–Friday 11:30 am–2:30 pm; Dinner: Monday–Thursday 5–10 pm, Friday–Saturday 5 pm–12 am, Sunday 5 pm–10 pm; Brunch: Sunday 9:30 am–1:30 pm. Not kosher.