Il Piatto restaurant review: Pastas priced to please in downtown D.C. – The Washington Post

The scent of truffles wafts from my plate of pasta, flat sheets of maltagliati arranged with velvety shiitakes and a creamy topper of ricotta cheese.

The dish, at the new-in-June Il Piatto, is heady eating, but the pleasure is richer for its price. Twenty-two dollars seems a fair cost in light of the setting and the location. Il Piatto follows Mirabelle, the dashing French restaurant that originally saw Frank Ruta in the kitchen, and sits at the corner of 16th and I streets — two blocks from the White House.

Washington restaurateur Hakan Ilhan, who created both establishments, says the pandemic and the renaming of a stretch of 16th Street to Black Lives Matter Plaza were behind his decision to switch cuisines and lower prices. “Our values have changed,” he says. The demand for fine dining is more than met by the city’s current supply, he adds.

Inside or out? It’s a toss-up when the weather’s on your side. Il Piatto (“the dish” in Italian) offers one of the most tempting outdoor dining spaces around. Bordered with greenery and shaded with umbrellas, the alfresco seating takes in the steeple of St. John’s Episcopal Church and the top half of the Washington Monument: dinner and (a bit of) a show.

Inside, Ilhan retained almost everything from Mirabelle but the linens on the tables: capacious semi-circular booths, burgundy leather panels, lots of brass trim and lighting that’s as arty as it is practical. Some customers show up in suits — it’s downtown, after all — but others arrive with ball caps and backpacks, a reminder that tourists have returned to the city and others of us feel more comfortable in jeans these days.

Ilhan found a solid choice for chef in Lina Nicolai, a native of Naples who last cooked, alongside her mother, Juliana, at Shaw’s Al Crostino, closed two autumns ago. Her time in a popular neighborhood restaurant is a good fit for her employer’s change of direction, where entrees average an agreeable $26. (A separate brunch list introduces “tiramisu” French toast, eggs Benedict and an Italian shakshuka.)

Nothing on the all-day menu is likely to send you to Google Translate. The selections read pretty much like answers to a game show invitation: Name a popular Italian dish! But who cares when the food is good? The juicy meatballs, showered with filings of pecorino cheese, are rolled from ground beef loosely held together with milk-soaked bread and egg and warmed in fresh tomato sauce. The fried calamari sport a clingy, paprika-spiced batter and get a nice charge from a garnish of pickled vegetables. A creamy tomato sauce supports a trio of arancini, golden fritters with molten interiors of rice and mozzarella.

Don’t bother with the Caesar salad, a mountain of chopped romaine punctuated with airy croutons that looks like some kid’s unfortunate after-school special. The superior salad is a fan of wine-poached pear alongside a nest of radicchio scattered with goat cheese and toasted walnuts. The composition has just what you want from a salad: sweet, bitter and tangy notes that whet your appetite for more.

Ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta and draped with a creamy tomato sauce is richer than I expect; rigatoni catching luscious bits of pork ragu is surprisingly light. I appreciate both. Like the truffle-fragrant mushroom pasta, the pork dish is sepia-toned and deceptive. Both preparations swell with flavor.

A couple days a week, Nicolai, 37, gets the free assistance of her mother, who, along with the chef’s grandmother, taught her how to cook. “She’s my live audiobook,” jokes Nicolai, who says her mother coaches her “not to be afraid of salt.” That’s a metaphor for the trust she puts in herself and her mother, whose recipe for the aforementioned pork ragu she features at Il Piattio. “Juliana’s” rigatoni, whispering of dried thyme, oregano and rosemary, is reason alone to book a table here.

The glory of the main courses is skate served in parchment paper, a salute to the chef’s native Naples. The delicate fish, baked with wine, capers, tomatoes and zucchini and set off with mussels and clams, looks and tastes like a gift from Neptune. “Pepper?” asks Nicolai when she drops by my table during her round of diners. The seasoning passes the Goldilocks test. It’s just right.

Veal scallopine, on the other hand? The flavor is fine, but the meat requires serious sawing. The better choice is lamb, offered as a trio of dainty chops reclining on mashed potatoes and ratatouille, escorts found on multiple main courses. The spark of joy on the plate is a basil-brightened chimichurri. Chicken slices scattered with mushrooms and whispering of marsala proves quietly satisfying, like the service here.

In the no-surprise department, you’ll find panna cotta, (routine) tiramisu and Italian cheesecake among the desserts. The last, a whip of ricotta, mascarpone and cream cheese on a hint of crushed amaretti, glides over the tongue, hitting all the pleasure points.

Happy hour finds a busy marble bar, newly outfitted with tall tables, and a welcome trend: more hours in which to take advantage of predinner deals. Starting at 2:30 p.m. (til 6:30 p.m.) Monday through Friday, draft beer goes for $4, select cocktails cost $8 and the tasty arancini are six bucks less than in the dining room. Want to upgrade? Splurge on the Italian margarita, a toast to tequila and Grand Marnier for $12.


Don’t expect fireworks here. The kitchen doesn’t send any out. What Il Piatto offers instead is a good plate of pasta and a nice piece of fish in an unusually attractive room at a price that won’t make you flinch.

Precisely what a lot of us crave right now.

Il Piatto

900 16th St. NW. 202-506-3833. Open: Inside and outside dining and takeout 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 4:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday. Prices: Appetizers $12.95 to $17.95, pastas and entrees $18.95 to $34.95. Sound check: 72 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: The double set of doors at the entrance are heavy; ADA-compliant restrooms. Pandemic protocols: Masks for staff are optional; all employees are vaccinated.