When we lived in Santa Monica, we had a favorite Italian restaurant across the street called Fritto Misto. I've been searching for the DC version of Fritto Misto ever since we moved here. Key ingredients are: 1) walking distance, 2) cozy feel, 3) freshly-made pasta, and 4) reasonable prices.
When Tortino opened recently, I was certain that it was going to be our Fritto Misto. Tortino is Chef Noe Canales' first venture into restaurant ownership after working in the kitchens of Cafe Milano, Al Tiramisu, and Tosca. It is tucked in a little rowhouse on 11th street (walking distance and cozy!). While Tortino's sign is hard to spot, just look for the "Luis Beauty Salon Unisex" sign and the Christmas lights and you'll know you're in the right place.While we waited for our friends to arrive, we snacked on a plate of calamari that was perhaps the best-seasoned calamari we've had. The delicate breading had a spicy touch that made it hard to put our forks down. By the time our friends arrived, there was nothing left but a couple of crumbs.
B and I shared the three color salad with goat cheese, tomatoes, almonds, and lemon dressing. Not memorably amazing, but good as far as standard salads go.
I had a hard time deciding what to order and our waiter was not a lot of help. He (and the rest of the staff) seemed flustered and overwhelmed during our visit. He recommended every dish on the menu equally. I finally settled on the chesnut gnocchi with lamb ragu and ended up wishing I was eating the dish B ordered. The gnocchi were so small that they had a weird dry texture and the lamb ragu was a little too far on the sweet side of the spectrum. This dish was a miss for me, but our very hard to please friend loved every bite of the pasta dish he ordered.
B fared much better with his linguine with seafood, white wine and cherry tomato sauce. This dish is reportedly the chef's favorite and with good reason.
Tortino nailed the walking distance and cozy feel elements and performed well in the freshly-made pasta department (if you don't order the gnocchi). The reasonably priced category is debatable as the pasta dishes range from $13 to $18. The service was comically bumpy in places, but we're chalking that up to it being a new restaurant. While it's not my Fritto Misto, I am happy to have Tortino as a new neighbor.
Second Thoughts from B
When J and I write a food-related blog post, the process is as follows: I load the pictures, she provides the narrative, and then I add my perspective. The passing of the baton from one stage to the next usually comes in the form of an email or gchat that simply says, "[Restaurant name] is ready for you."
This morning, when I received "Tortino is ready for you," I immediately thought to myself: What the hell is Tortino? Needless to say, that's not the lasting impression any restaurant would like to be giving.
As J pointed out, there were high and low points. I loved the "hole in the wall" idea of the place (i.e., only locals know about it), but was disappointed by the restaurant's space that felt like a literal hole in a wall. It reminded me of the before picture from one of those home renovation shows. It was clean, but about as interesting as a rec hall. I also loved the warmth of the staff and their efforts to please, but it was obvious that most of them were new to the business.
I loved the calamari which was not only seasoned beautifully but cooked with a deft touch. The texture was perfect. However, the dipping sauce was either out of a bottle or made to taste like it was. I was very happy with the quality of my dish which far and away outshone the decor and service. However, the prices indicated a more polished product and seemed like a stretch.
If Tortino is able to work through some of these growing pains, I see potential. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. The good news is that talent in the kitchen will help make people overlook the other missteps. But for it to become our Fritto Misto, or for me to even remember it as one of our local dining options, it needs to be the total package.