I heart Artusi… I expected this new Capitol Hill hot spot, connected to sister restaurant, Spinasse, to be so crammed that Aran and I would be left to press our noses against the glass and look longingly inside. But we must have lucked out when we came by one recent evening, early enough to beat the serious eating and drinking crowd.
Artusi occupies a corner spot at 14th and E Pine, and big windows on two sides afford good views of the bustle of Capitol Hill. It’s a light and airy space, with a mostly gray and white color palette with accents of yellow and red here and there. The wood on various vertical surfaces warms up the room, particularly due to the texture created by the burned effect on the plywood facings. Long narrow paper cylinders scattered across the ceiling serve as light fixtures for the space, hovering above the several tables, the u-shaped counter around the bar, and the two-sided version around the mini open kitchen. The counter tops are distinctive decorative elements themselves, with vast expanses of hexagonal tile echoed in the bar’s brand as well as the lemon zest in my cocktail.
No doubt one of the reasons that I’m such a fan of Artusi, their cocktails are crafted with care and clearly are a big part of the experience here. The night we were there they were hanging on to the tail end of summer, so we got to sample a “Drink the Kool-Aid” with Ransom Old Tom gin, Aperol, Cinzano Bianco, soda, lemon, and an enormous (and very fashionable) single ice cube. Our second cocktail was fall/winter seasaonal, so you’re likely find it on the menu if you visit soon: The “Miller’s Crossing,” with Martin Miller’s gin, Amaro Montenegro, black currant vinegar, and Clear Creek cassis liqueur. Or maybe you’ll be in the mood for a “Bambi Warhol” with Aviation gin, 360 vodka, Cocchi Americano, orange bitters, and citrus peel. The name alone makes it worth a try, I think. Perhaps it’s a nod to Spinasse chef and Artusi mastermind, Jason Stratton?
When we got there we had our pick of seats, and though we’re usually bar people, it was tough to pass up the chance to perch with a view of that tiny open kitchen. It’s really a prep kitchen, I suppose, as the more complicated stuff comes from Spinasse next door. Everything I read about Artusi prior to its opening insisted that the emphasis here is on drink rather than food, but like the cocktails, each dish on the petite menu seems to have been carefully chosen for inclusion. I rarely see so much on offer that is unfamiliar to me, but in this case the unfamiliarity felt intriguing rather than intimidating. Maybe it was the service – warm and engaging and not the slightest bit standoffish. Both the server and bartender were ready with suggestions, and happy to answer questions about this or that.
We started off with a couple of items from the Antipasti section of the menu: Fra’mani salametto (think salami-esque) with Meyer lemon mostarda di Cremona, and piping hot Quadrello di bufala cheese with raw Tremiti olives and hazelnut oil. Next came our Primi, my favorite of the night and something I’ve been raving about ever since: the black rice polenta with slow roasted goat and summer greens. Our selection from Piatti di Artusi was the “tonno di Chianti,” pork preserved in the style of tuna, with pickled young onions and marinated borlotti beans. And for dessert? Hazelnut cake with figs and cherry blossom honey in a particularly “rustic” (read: not perfectly formed) shape.
When I think about this dinner it feels like we had the chance to experience a wide range of flavors and textures – the creaminess of the black rice polenta contrasting with the sharpness of the preserved pork, in particular – and I can’t wait to return for more. Next time it might be the shaved white mushrooms and egg with salsa “Apicius” if it’s still on the menu. And if not, I suspect that there will be something else that has taken its place that I’ll want to try even more. And a delicious cocktail option or two, of course…