Those lucky patrons of the Olney Farmers and Artists Market who attended the Farm to Table Dinner in 2012 will remember the pasta course cooked by Chef Roberto Donna. He has been busy around the city since then, opening, first, the trattoria Al Dente, and now Alba Osteria.
His latest venue is focused on small plates for sharing and pizza to be accompanied by a glass or two from the large list of Italian and American wines, craft cocktails and draft beer. The cuisine, which may be unfamiliar to many, is from Chef Roberto’s home region of Piemonte. We went downtown on a Friday night to sample the food and drink.
The osteria’s layout has tables on the perimeter surrounding a central bar, and an open kitchen with a very decorative pizza oven. This, together with the hard surfaces of the room, makes for a loud and lively scene.
Indeed, the open kitchen trope has been taken to an extreme - it can be easily viewed from the street.
And Out: Kitchen From the Street
The pizza oven can be seen as a decorative element. Orange has been used throughout the room - it makes for a visually exciting environment, contributing to the edgy energy of the scene. The food is equally stimulating, through being unfamiliar and, mostly, delicious.
The Pizza Oven
About a dozen wines are available by the glass. We had a very good La Rocca Coppo Gavi 2012, well-balanced and excellent with food. I don’t usually prefer white wine, but this was a good choice. We got right into the spirit of ordering small plates - we had six of them to share between the two of us, and were too full for dessert!
We started with a seafood special, scallops grilled just to the point of doneness, with little puddles of sauce that gave them a piquant edge. Then lingua al verde, veal tongue in green sauce. Again, the sauce was a film on the plate, just enough to add a fillip to the mild meat.
Then, a pasta course: agnolotti al brasato, little pockets stuffed with braised beef, beef jus, and bone marrow - a triple threat of meaty goodness; and trofie alla finanziera, with sweetbreads, veal brains, and chicken liver, which I had mostly to myself. My dining companion shuddered and left the offal to me! I have to admit that this was the least successful dish we tried. It was overly salty, and the finely-minced meat had no distinct flavor. The trofie (small, rolled pasta) were a trifle under-cooked, making them chewy.
Next, we went for a vegetable course: L’Inverno, a grilled melange of eggplant, red onion, endive, and radicchio; and subric (fritters). There was a surprise lurking under the construction of wintery vegetables; a tomato! I got to eat the intruder, as my companion dislikes them, but I had the better experience, since the acid of the raw fruit cut through the extreme char of the vegetables.
Trofie, Not Trophy
The standout of the trio of fritters, with their bit of bagnetto rosso sauce, was the eggplant. Neither of us was sure which of the other two was the cauliflower and which the potato, as both were rather bland purees, but the sauce redeemed them.
Winter Is Coming!
At this point we realized that dessert would be overdoing it. It was just too bad! We would really have liked to try the several chocolate-involved creations, as well as the polenta bianca, or the gelato and sorbet offered by the scoop - but discretion is the better part of gluttony.
Chef Roberto has left this kitchen in the capable hands of Chef de Cuisine Amy Brandwein. She is doing well by the regional Piemonte cuisine, and by the region of Mount Vernon Square in Washington, DC.
Note: Thanks go to Lindley Thornburg of the Heather Freeman Agency for her kind invitation to write about Alba Osteria.
Note again: If this article has made you curious about Chef Roberto’s cuisine, the Olney Farmers and Artists Market is sponsoring a forthcoming dinner featuring his artistry. There are a few seats still available. Find more information at the website.