Matt Adler has no desire to reinvent the Parmesan wheel. Maybe it’s a sign of maturity, or simply the confidence that accompanies experience, but the chef and partner at Caruso’s Grocery does not care to wow customers with any newfangled culinary creations at the anticipated full-service Italian-American restaurant that opened this week in Capitol Hill. On the contrary, he’s a preservationist. His cause? The classic “red sauce joint” in the mold of Scoozi, his father Larry’s place north of New York City, where Adler worked the line as a teenager and throughout culinary school.
At the time, Adler grew bored with cranking out chicken Parm and meatballs, pushing him to travel in Italy and fall under the wing of lauded NYC chef Michael White, which is how he came to open Osteria Morini when D.C.’s Navy Yard was light on restaurants. At 39, though, Adler thinks about how Saturday and Sunday nights at Scoozi were always an event, how happy the customers were, and how Larry Adler had so many moves, like tossing a splash of limoncello in the shrimp scampi.
“Every time I read his menus, I’m like, why don’t I cook like this?” Adler says he asked himself.
At Caruso’s Grocery (1401 Pennsylvania Ave SE), he does, albeit with the commitment to quality sourcing and drinking well that comes from a partnership with Neighborhood Restaurant Group founder Michael Babin. Adler has put a lot of time into workshopping a straightforward chicken Parmigiana, taking care to thinly pound out 7-ounce breasts the same morning they’ll be coated in seasoned breadcrumbs, fried fast, and sold with a side of spaghetti for under $24. Chef de Cucina Marvin Lopez will be the one doing it every day.
“You have to pound them just the right way, or it’s too tough,” Adler says.
Mozzarella in carrozza was another Scoozy facsimile. Low-moisture, stringy Grande cheese gets layered with sliced bread and a puree of roasted garlic, lemon, and herbs before it’s all battered, fried, and served over tomato-basil sauce. Adler knew some customers might knock Caruso’s for cooking with veal, but it’s a staple of the genre, so he offers a Francaise cutlet with egg wash and Parm and a lemon-butter sauce.
Ricotta comes from Calabro, a distributor in Connecticut founded in 1953. Rhode Island calamari go into a semolina-dusted appetizer and a seafood fra diavolo with fresh tagliatelle. Although NRG counts Red Apron Butcher under its umbrella, Adler went with Alps brand soppressata for an appetizer offering both sweet and spicy slices. “That’s the brand that you would see at these delis in Brooklyn,” he says. “It’s got a little bit of milk to it. It’s just different flavor profile.”
Depending on the dish, Caruso’s will use fresh or dried pasta. Adler’s kitchen makes rolls its own gnocchi, fettuccine, ravioli, and bucatini topped with a spicy Neapolitan ragu. But he likes De Cecco pasta for spaghetti, penne, and and linguini in clam sauce: “It’s super consistent.” Adler’s personal favorite pasta is penne alla vodka with peas and prosciutto. He’s got dad jokes for that, saying “it’s healthy because it has peas in it.” The one exception to the unmodern approach at Caruso’s is fettuccine Alfredo, which can sink diners like an anchor made of cream. Adler’s version leans on mushrooms cooked down in marsala wine, shallots, and garlic to lighten the load.
A list of $10 cocktails includes an “antipasti dirty martin” that’s made with a tomato gin and olive brine and garnished with basil, mozzarella, and olives. Italian craft brewers Del Ducato and Del Borgo show up with a saison-lambic blend and a sour ale, respectively. NRG spirits director Nick Farrell makes his own limoncello, orangecello, sambuca, amaro, and espresso liqueur.
To accompany those digestifs, there are espresso drinks from Cameo, the Roost’s coffee shop. At the end of it all, Caruso’s offers cannoli filled to order with a mix of ricotta and Nutella. There’s tiramisu, of course, along with Brooklyn-style cheesecake and a blood orange creme brulee.
Adler and Babin didn’t want the place to look cheesy. They covered it in a beige wallpaper with an “aged” texture that looks about right, booths with a new-but-faded red color, and cluster upon cluster of black-and-white photos. A portrait of Babin’s grandmother, who ran the original Caruso’s Grocery in Louisiana, is by the door. A perimeter of photos ringing the the ceiling has such luminaries as Frank Sinatra and Tony Soprano.