On a Tuesday this past spring, chef Mike Friedman—Mikey to his friends—is in the kitchen of his Olney home. The room is spacious, ordered and pristine, with white cabinetry, white quartz countertops, and gray and white marble tile backsplashes. Multiple windows fill the space with light.
Friedman stands at his GE Monogram professional range to prepare rigatoni all’amatriciana, a dish that will be on the menu at Aventino, his Bethesda restaurant that is scheduled to open in early 2023. Adjacent to Aventino, Friedman will open a takeout-focused pizzeria called AP Pizza Shop.
The 41-year-old Friedman brings plenty of experience to the projects. He opened The Red Hen, his first and still wildly popular Italian restaurant, in D.C.’s Bloomingdale neighborhood in 2013, followed by two D.C. locations of All-Purpose Pizzeria (hence AP Pizza Shop), one in Shaw (2016) and one at Capitol Riverfront (2018).
Friedman is preparing Aventino menu items for this writer to sample. On the kitchen island are a chunk of Pecorino Romano (a sheep’s milk cheese) resting on a cutting board and some items from the aperitivo (cocktail snacks) section of Aventino’s upcoming menu: a bowl of glistening, bright green Castelvetrano olives marinated with olive oil, fresh bay leaves and lemon zest; sandwiches made with pizza bianco (the thin, spongy everyday bread of Rome), fig preserves, arugula and thinly sliced mortadella spiked with pistachio nuts and squares of fat; and taralli, small, ring-shaped Roman crackers studded with sesame and fennel seeds.
On the stove is a saute pan with cubes of guanciale (cured pork cheek) that have been browned and rendered. Next to it is the amatriciana sauce, a 45-minute simmer of tomato passata (pureed, strained and uncooked tomatoes), chile flakes, black pepper and rendered guanciale. “All of our extruded pastas [spaghetti, ziti, fusilli, etc.] are homemade,” Friedman says as he drops rigatoni into a pot of boiling water. “We don’t dry them. We refrigerate them first, then freeze them for a day. This way, they cook to al dente in a minute and don’t retain a lot of water. And we don’t salt the pasta water.” The dish comes together in a minute in the saute pan of guanciale. Olive oil, amatriciana sauce, pasta water and a dab of butter emulsify into a luxuriant sauce, glazing the rigatoni with a lustrous orange sheen. Friedman scoops it into bowls and grates Pecorino Romano on top. Nodding approval after a first bite, he muses, “I hope I’m doing the right thing. You can create a dish using 25 or 30 ingredients and have it taste good. It’s harder to be simple because everything’s naked.”
Friedman’s parents instilled an interest in food early on. “I grew up in a Jewish household in Westfield, New Jersey, a predominantly Italian suburb of New York City. There were Italian restaurants and four stellar pizzerias,” he says. His mother, Vicki, exposed him to good Jewish cooking at home, but the family was also keen on takeout: pizza weekly and Chinese food regularly. His father, Robert, was raised in the Bronx and was always seeking out the best food places, especially in New York, where he worked selling TV airtime.
Friedman graduated from Boston University in 2003 with a degree in communications. A brief stint selling radio airtime made him realize the cubicle life wasn’t for him. At 22, he was broke and living in his parents’ Chevy Chase apartment. (They had moved in 2000 for Robert’s work.) Leafing through his mother’s cookbook collection inspired him to give cooking a try. Hitting up a manager at Mon Ami Gabi in Bethesda in 2004 through the friend of a friend, he talked his way into a job with little more experience than working in an Italian deli and scooping ice cream. “I had never used a chef’s knife before, so the guy who hired me handed me a chain-mail [protective metal] glove and said, ‘Don’t f— this up. This is my reputation.’ ” A friend he made there, a young assistant manager named Mike O’Malley, is now a partner in Friedman’s restaurants.
Friedman thrived, learning every station and even going through the management program of Mon Ami Gabi’s parent company, Lettuce Entertain You. In 2006 he went to The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, earning an associate degree. Later that year he got a cooking job at José Andrés’ D.C. restaurant Zaytinya.
Friedman threw himself into work and rose up in Andrés’ company, ThinkFoodGroup (TFG), becoming sous-chef, first at Zaytinya and then at the group’s D.C. location of Jaleo. But long hours and his father’s death took a toll, and, he says, he hit a wall in 2010. He left TFG, took a break from cooking, then returned to D.C. to work at Proof (now closed) and Estadio.
In 2012, Friedman decided it was time to strike out on his own, and he asked O’Malley, his Mon Ami Gabi buddy, to join him in the venture. O’Malley, who earned an MBA from DePaul University in Chicago in 2008 and was working in the restaurant business in that city, was all in and moved back to the D.C. area. O’Malley knew that he and Friedman would be a good fit in business. “Mike is a happy-go-lucky guy, which is not always the case in back-of-the-house people. He’s a good leader, a good trainer and understands operations and numbers,” O’Malley says.
They, along with another partner, Sebastian Zutant, opened The Red Hen in April 2013. “We were young enough and dumb enough to sign a lease on our own space,” Friedman jokes, adding that he went from sous-chef to owner but skipped the executive chef part.
The laid-back neighborhood joint was a hit. After a couple of years, they decided to expand with a different but related concept, settling on New York-style pizza. “Everyone was doing Neapolitan pizza [in D.C.] at the time, so we decided to do deck-oven pies because they were near and dear to me and my New Jersey upbringing,” Friedman says. To facilitate expansion and handle the larger operation, O’Malley and Friedman brought on two partners, Colin McDonough and Gareth Croke, the owners of Boundary Stone, a D.C. pub around the corner from The Red Hen. In 2015, they formed RedStone Restaurant Group. (The name is a combination of Red Hen and Boundary Stone.) In 2016, Zutant left the group to open a wine bar right after All-Purpose Pizzeria opened in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood.
O’Malley considers opening in Bethesda a homecoming of sorts for both himself and Friedman because of their past at Mon Ami Gabi, where they learned foundational restaurant skills. The fact that both are familiar with the Bethesda market gives them an advantage, he says.
Friedman was skeptical about the timing when RedStone’s real estate broker (and Bethesda resident) Jared Meier of CBRE contacted him in November 2019 about a Bethesda property he wanted Friedman to see. “My partners and I weren’t sure about reaching out into Montgomery County yet. But it was a prime location [JBG Smith Properties’ headquarters at 4747 Bethesda Ave.] and [JBG] was very interested in talking to us,” Friedman says. The deal was on the table, then off the table when the pandemic hit, and then revisited when things were more stable. They signed a lease with JBG Smith in November 2020.
Bethesda as a location for expansion wasn’t a hard sell for Friedman. “I had a wonderful time working in Bethesda from 2004 to 2006 and always saw it as a wonderful community that demanded more from its food and beverage scene,” he says. Friedman says that as a Montgomery County resident with two small children, Bethesda provided an opportunity for him and his wife, Ashley—a seventh-generation county resident—to go to places such as Mon Ami Gabi, Woodmont Grill, Pizzeria Da Marco and Raku. “Having a hub where Ashley and her parents, her brother, a massive amount of aunts and uncles and cousins, my mother, who lives right off of Woodmont Avenue, and friends can come is also a bonus,” Friedman says.
It’s no coincidence that RedStone named the LLC of their two Bethesda restaurants There’s No Place Like Rome. Friedman says The Red Hen is about an idea, that of a generally Italian restaurant, whereas Aventino is about tradition, specifically food from Rome. He became enamored with the city when his father took him there on a tour of Italy in 2006. Eating in various trattorias, seeing how the Roman Empire lived, and going to the Jewish ghetto affected him greatly. “I was young, a sponge soaking everything up,” he says. The coexistence of the old and new fascinated him. “Rome is one of the oldest modern cities on Earth. To see the Forum and Circus Maximus while staying in a modern hotel and to see historical and traditional ideas clashing with forward and modern-thinking ones in trattorias inspired me.” The trip was also a bonding experience for Friedman and his father, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2008, forwent treatment and died six weeks later.
Italy continued to beckon. He went there with his mother in 2010 and honeymooned there with Ashley in 2012, when Friedman accidentally booked a seniors cruise starting in Venice and ending in Rome. “Where is everyone?” he wondered when they first boarded. “I only see their grandparents.”
In February 2020, the RedStone partners went on a five-day research and development tour of Rome. “I had an idea of how Italians ate from my previous trips to Rome, but to go with a much sharper eye about how modern Romans eat and drink was something we needed to experience,” Friedman says. “We didn’t have a name or a core concept.” During the trip, O’Malley came up with the name Aventino, which is one of the seven hills that Rome was built on. As research, they visited several trattorias—among them Armando al Pantheon, Santo Palato and da Cesare—to experience classical Roman cuisine and modern, innovative interpretations of it. They also quaffed at Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà, a bar in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood known for its craft beer selection.
Friedman knew he wanted to focus on the four classic Roman pastas, three of which are planned for the Aventino menu: cacio e pepe, tonnarelli (a spaghetti-like pasta) with Pecorino Romano cheese and lots of cracked black pepper; carbonara, spaghetti with guanciale, egg yolk and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese; and amatriciana, which is named after the Lazio town of Amatrice. (The fourth Roman pasta is alla gricia, made with guanciale, Pecorino Romano and black pepper.)
Aventino’s menu will be divided into five sections: aperitivo, antipasti (appetizers), pizza romana, pasta and secondi (entrees). Currently planned entrees include fried whole branzino with Meyer lemon cream, roasted half chicken with truffle jus, and crispy veal chop with prosciutto and sage butter. Antipasti and pizzas will be around $15, pastas around $20. The branzino and chicken will be $36, the veal chop $45. No dish on The Red Hen’s menu will be on Aventino’s, Friedman says.
Pizza-wise, Aventino will offer only Roman pizza—8-inch, thin-crust, shareable snacking pizzas like you’d see on the streets of Rome. Among them: a white pizza with roasted figs, prosciutto, ricotta and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and a Calabrese pizza with Bianco diNapoli-brand tomatoes, ‘nduja (a spicy and spreadable fermented pork sausage) and burrata. “It makes sense to have pizza romana at Aventino because that style is prevalent in Rome,” Friedman says.
Growing up in a Jewish household in an Italian neighborhood made Rome resonate for Friedman. On his first trip there, he discovered that Jews inhabited Aventino until the mid-1500s, when they were forced into a cramped Jewish ghetto. (Jews weren’t allowed to live outside the ghetto until 1870.) A famous Roman dish that will appear on Aventino’s menu is carciofi alla giudia, Jewish-style fried artichokes. “[The Romans] gave the Jews artichokes because no one else wanted them. They were too difficult to clean and eat,” Friedman says. A planned salad with fried and marinated zucchini has Jewish roots. So do crispy veal sweetbreads with truffle fonduta. Variety meats, such as sweetbreads, kidneys and tripe, were considered the undesirable quinto quarto, the fifth quarter of the animal, a mainstay of Rome’s cucina povera (literally “poor kitchen,” meaning cooking made from the most economical ingredients). Trippa alla romana (Roman-style braised tripe) is an off-menu item that will always be available at Aventino, Friedman promises.
The partners’ trip heavily influenced Aventino’s bar program, Friedman says. “Aperitivo is so important in Italy. In Rome, they are passionate about spritzes…Negronis [gin, Campari, red vermouth] and other cocktails, such as martinis and bourbon-spiked drinks. We will have a strong spritz and Negroni program—the classics and variants—like a white Negroni, Campari spritz, riffs on a French 75 [gin, Champagne, lemon juice, sugar].” Their classic spritz will be garnished with green olives. “That’s all over Rome. The salty with sweet makes so much sense, and it looks so cool in the glass,” Friedman says.
Other Roman trends at Aventino will be cocktail ice branded with a monogram, a 70- to 100-bottle wine list heavy on producers from Lazio, the region of Italy where Rome is located, and Italian craft beers, such as those from Baladin Brewery in Italy’s Piedmont region.
Aventino’s 4,200-square-foot space will seat 135. In terms of design, look for Roman archways throughout, travertine cobblestone or mosaic pathways, marble tabletops, hanging greenery, leather accents, an emerald and gold color palette and a lavish use of exotic animal graphics, including on custom wallpaper.
The Aventino logo is an image of a giraffe wearing a plumed Roman helmet standing in profile next to a large long-stemmed rose. “The [ancient] Romans would bring exotic animals into the city and display and eat them. The giraffe is a symbol of the power of the Roman empire,” Friedman says. (Julius Caesar brought the first giraffe to Europe in 46 B.C.) The archlike shape of the border represents a keyhole on the gate of the Knights of Malta’s headquarters—known as the Aventine Keyhole—that frames a perfect view of St. Peter’s Basilica. Friedman went to this popular tourist attraction with his father. The rose represents Rome’s Municipal Rose Garden, built in 1950 on the eastern side of the Aventine Hill on top of what had been a Jewish cemetery from 1645 to 1934, when it was moved to build the via del Circo Massimo. The garden’s pathways, when seen from above, are shaped like a menorah.
AP Pizza Shop: ‘Coney Island Meets Jersey Shore’
AP Pizza Shop’s 2,000-square-foot space will seat 20, with a separate to-go window highlighting a focus on takeout. Chef Mike Friedman and his partners named it AP Pizza Shop rather than All-Purpose Pizzeria to differentiate it from their two D.C. locations, which are full-on sit-down restaurants. “We will serve the same kind of New York-style pizza and some of the same D.C. pies on the AP menu, but AP is a more casual concept with a nostalgic feel,” Friedman says. “Coney Island meets Jersey Shore.”
The dinner menu will be divided into starters, including eggplant parm, whipped ricotta with black truffle honey, and risotto balls with beef and pork ragu; salads; pizza; and sweets, including olive oil cake with strawberry preserves, tiramisu, and panna cotta with whipped Nutella. Starters and salads will be around $14. Pizzas will be around $21. Desserts will be $9.
Friedman will offer both New York and Sicilian styles of pizza to emulate old-school pizzerias in New York and New Jersey.
Sicilian pizza (rectangular pizza with thick, spongy dough cut into squares) will be available only at lunch, whole or by the slice. New York-style pizza (12-inch-diameter, thin crust, crispy and chewy dough) will be available at lunch and dinner. Both types will be baked in a deck oven. The Sicilian pizza dough will be sourdough; the New York pizza dough won’t be. Among the New York pies will be Sedgewick (whipped ricotta, mozzarella, Taleggio and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses, black truffle honey and chives); Enzo the Baker (tomatoes, mozzarella, capicola bacon, chiles, red onion and Pecorino Romano); and Marsala (porcini mushroom crema, smoked mozzarella, braised chicken and wild mushrooms).
AP Pizza Shop will be designed to evoke classic New Jersey and New York City pizzerias, with wooden booths, Italian midcentury posters and an open kitchen with deck ovens and stacked pizza boxes, metal pizza pans and cans of plum tomatoes on display.
This story appears in the September/October 2022 issue of Bethesda Magazine.
David Hagedorn is the restaurant critic for Bethesda Magazine.