Assaggi: Authentic Italian Cooking Inside the Beltway


Photos:  Joanna Moreno/DC Spotlight Newspaper

April 1, 2012

By Alex Barron

Restaurant Critic

Bon Appetit

A popular knock on Washington, DC has always been its dearth of solid, authentic Italian restaurants – which is no doubt related to its relative lack of actual Italians. Unlike neighboring cities to the north, DC has no “Little Italy,” and it is not uncommon to find that even its seeminglygenuine trattorias are run by owners and chefs from Asia, Central America or some other location far away from The Boot.








In Domenico Cornacchia, the area has a rarity: a highly accomplished native Italian Chef. After moonlighting at various restaurants throughout Italy and the U.S., Cornacchia chose to call DC home. He made a name for himself at Georgetown’s highly acclaimed Cafe Milano before opening Assaggi, an osteria and mozzarella bar in the heart of Bethesda. Press accolades for Assaggi – including an appearance on Washingtonian’s 2011 Best Restaurants List – have rolled in, and the restaurant’s devotees vocally sing the chef’s praises. (“Domenico is hands down the most underrated chef in the city,” raved one patron. “I come here at least once a month!”)

A recent partnership with St. Paul’s Vineyard, located in Italy’s Upper Etsch Valley, just south of the Austrian border, provides a complement to the kitchen’s sophisticated Italian cooking. A strong supporting cast of Italian wines is a prerequisite for any serious Italian restaurant, and St. Paul’s now gives Assaggi a widevariety of pairings for its already extensive dinner menu.

“Assaggi” means “tastings” in Italian, and in keeping with this theme, Cornacchia encourages guests to experiment with small plates, little tastings of everything.  It should be said that those who prefer to stick to one or two larger courses will not be disappointed.  Because Assaggi bills itself as a mozzarella bar, the ubiquitous Italian cheese plays a central role on the menu. Waiters and waitresses double as mozzarella sommeliers and are happy to explain the differences between four available varieties, some Italian and some American. A sampler platter – available for $21 – provides the grand tour and is the most popular appetizer on the menu.

The Cannolichi al forno combines salty chunks of clam with herbed bread crumbs to provide a complex texture, while the Sfolglia, an individual piece of fresh egg pasta, arrives smothered in a sweet taleggio cheese, cut by a bitter radicchio garnish. Cornacchia has a knack for combining salty and sweet ingredients in unexpected ways.  His Risotto is dotted with toasted hazelnuts and savory pieces of speck, a cured meat not unlike prosciutto, and drizzled in sweet balsamic vinegar.

Pasta dishes are hearty and reliable. Veal and spinach ravioli ($17), a standout, features finely ground veal and a flavorful sauce of butter and chives. The Pappardelle ($18) with boar meat, rosemary and pecorino cheese is one of the more filling pasta entrees on the menu, which is likely to make a satisfying meal on its own.

Meat and fish entrees are generously portioned and hearty, particularly the Tuscan Style Ribeye ($29), a thick cut of meat bathed in a sauce of olives and mushrooms. The salt-encrusted fish, available only intermittently, is one of Cornacchia’s flashiest showpieces: a large hunk of fish, buried beneath a thick armor of salt. Waiters use special tools to excavate the fish, making the meal a combination of dinner and entertainment.

The greatest compliment to Assaggi is its steadily growing base of followers: Italophiles who swear by Cornacchia’s cooking and make it their mission to create converts. The restaurant is planning a trip to Italy over the summer, which is open to anyone who wants to experience the chef’s inspirations – and the creations of his new partners at St. Paul’s – firsthand. The fact that spots on this trip are filling quickly is a testament both to Cornacchia’s cooking and to his personal charisma.

Contact Information:

Assaggi Restaurant

4838 Bethesda Avenue

Bethesda, MD 20814

(301) 951-1988



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DC Spotlight Restaurant Critic

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