To know the story of Conosci is to know the story of its “parent” restaurant, Alta Strada. The Italian restaurant owned by chef Michael Schlow opened just over a year ago in the up and coming City Vista complex. The venue itself has ample space and seating, so much so that even those that take the time to look around may not notice the velvet curtains in the corner. They’re not merely decorative. Think of them as a secret portal to another world — hence the name “Conosci,” an italian word that means “to know.”
“I would say that over the past couple of months we’ve started to see more and more guests from the neighborhood come to see us,” assistant general manager and company-wide beverage director Eric DiNardo says of the migration he’s witnessed. “And a lot of that has come from the fact that Alta Strada just had its one year anniversary … and we’ve developed and established this regular clientele that comes to see us three days a week at Alta Strada and they always see those curtains but never go back there. And one day they walk in and go, ‘You know I’m going to try Conosci tonight.’”
Since the restaurant’s debut just over a year ago, the staff and chef have worked to turn inherent obstacles — having a limited kitchen and no bar means that beverages are prepared on a rolling cart right in front of guests, and that the wine fellow diners are sipping might be just one of four bottles, period — into unique opportunities.
Chef George Rodrigues has switched from focusing almost exclusively on crudo to producing culinary wonders such as potato salad fashioned into the shape of a bird’s nest — a dish that bears no resemblance to the mayonnaise-laden staple so commonly found at summer barbecues. ”That’s the creative freedom that we have over here,” says Rodrigues. “And of course we want to have fun with whatever we’re cooking.”
As Conosci prepares to celebrate its first anniversary with a special party on Wednesday, April 19, Rodrigues and DiNardo reflect on making their mark in the neighborhood, staying creatively charged, and what’s on deck for year two.
Chef, your food is able to strike the chord of not only looking delectable and intriguing when it’s presented, but tasting just as great as it looks. How do you do that?
George Rodrigues: We come up with ideas and we work based on that traditional idea, and from that, it just becomes something else. Flavor-wise, we’re always trying to find the perfect balance between all the flavors and making sure they are complementing each other. That comes with practice and training, and of course we always like to eat beautiful food, so that is something that is easily accomplished when we’re trying to come up with some new flavors, some new dishes, for our tasting menu.
The Conosci menu changes on a daily basis. How do you stay creatively motivated?
GR: Coming up with ideas, that is actually the easy part. But I would say especially here we include everybody, including the managers and the servers, and we all talk about each dish, each presentation, each idea, and we try to find the best way to execute. We’re looking for flavors, we’re looking for presentation. We’re also looking with the help of the managers and the servers — if it’s a dish that is easy for the guest to eat or understand. That’s the creative part of it, and taking things that are commonly found in restaurants, like potato salad, and just really giving it a little twist, a little modern take to it. That is the part of the creative process that’s fun, at least for us chefs to be working with.
A large part of the restaurant’s allure is the exclusivity and “mystery” behind it — the whole concept of it being a restaurant within a restaurant. Do you think that surprise is still there, a year later?
Eric DiNardo: I think that the space sort of does that for us, in a lot of ways. You mentioned being a restaurant within the restaurant — with the velvet curtains that you walk through to get there it sets that clear idea that you’re going in to some place completely different than the space that you were just in. I think that anytime a guest walks in for the first time the reaction is almost always one of surprise.
And even the guests who continue to come back, and our regulars who like to bring friends, a part of the reason they’re coming is for that surprise factor, and to show their friends it’s a really cool place. We like to continue that suspense; that’s why we don’t write out the tasting menus in advance. In part because we want to make sure we customize them for all of our guests, since we have a lot of guests with dietary restrictions, or even dislikes and want to make sure that we get them something they’re going to enjoy in every course.
When the restaurant first opened, the menu was focused on crudo, or raw seafood. Now you’re a tasting menu restaurant that includes prepared meats and vegetables. What was the decision behind that?
ED: In a lot of ways it just happened. When we opened, I think that a lot of us saw that space and saw its limitations. We don’t have a full kitchen in there, it’s a very small space. We have 31 total seats, and really quickly we began to realize that our limitations were in a lot of ways our strengths and what really sort of drove that creative approach. On the beverage side we no longer have to worry about continuity. If a purveyor [has] a great wine that they have four bottles of, we can buy those four bottles and know that we have this small restaurant where we can reprint the menu tomorrow, or we can just use it for wine pairings and not put it on anything. The space, I think, sort of forces us to be more creative than we ever would have, whether it’s with [the] execution of a dish, cocktail production, or the style of food.
Chef, you are also the executive chef at Tico, which is on 14th Street NW. Has it been hard to balance the two restaurants and their responsibilities?
GR: Not as difficult as I thought it would be. [With] Conosci, I think that the part that was more troublesome for me is the fact that we don’t have a kitchen and we can’t work as a conventional restaurant. On one side it’s difficult because there’s a lot of limitations in what we can do, but on the opposite side it keeps you thinking and coming up with alternatives and ideas. If I come up with an idea, a dish that requires something fried or something seared, that’s something we can’t do over there. So I’ll try to find a way to execute the same idea but in a different way that we can accommodate at the restaurant.
How do you feel that you’ve been received by the city, and what has surprised you?
ED: I would say what surprises us the most is that we’re still a secret to so many people. We often meet people both within and outside the industry that haven’t had an opportunity to experience us or even maybe heard about us. So we look forward to continuing to grow and continuing to establish ourselves in this second year. As far as how we have been received, I would say our guests’ willingness to be taken by surprise is something that in the beginning we weren’t really sure [about]. It’s important to us that our guests know that we do have some other dishes up our sleeves. The guests who we do have … and their willingness to really put themselves completely in our hands has been really refreshing.
What can diners expect in year two for Conosci?
GR: When I came on board, the conversation started to be more, “It’s supposed to be fun for us and for the guests.” And if we’re the ones that are providing service and wine and drinks and food, and if we’re thinking about ourselves in a sense of “We’re going to have fun with this,” and we put the best service, the best drinks, the best food out there — the most creative and fun — that’s going to reflect to the guests. And that’s the way we’re going to take it to the next level for the second year.
ED: As we continue to evolve, I think that the perception of us as a very fancy restaurant continues to persist. And while our dishes are beautiful and the space is beautiful and we always aim to offer the best service possible, we also don’t try to take ourselves too seriously.
This interview has been edited and condensed.