Is it a crime to go to a red sauce Italian joint and fall in love with a salad? If it is, book me, because I can’t get enough of one offered at Caruso’s Grocery, which opened in the Pike & Rose development in December. When my tricolore salad arrives at the table, I stop for a few seconds to take in the prettiness of the assemblage of bright red radicchio, vibrant green arugula and sliced olives and white endive that mimics the three colors of the Italian flag. Orange segments, toasted pistachios and fennel vinaigrette made with orange and lemon juice bring the salad to life, adding sweetness, acid and crunch. It’s only fitting—downright patriotic, really—to accompany it with an antipasti dirty martini made with tomato-infused gin, basil and olive brine. A cocktail pick rests on the rim of the quaff’s coupe glass, suspending a clever tricolore garnish (a cherry tomato, a mozzarella cube and a green olive) above its contents.
Alexandria-based Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which owns and operates 16 other establishments in Virginia and D.C., opened Caruso’s Grocery’s predecessor, Owen’s Ordinary, in 2016. The bar side of the business, known for its extensive beer offerings, had always been successful, but the restaurant lagged behind, especially in COVID’s wake. So NRG owner Michael Babin decided to keep the bar and its adjoining patio—rebranding it as Owen’s Tavern & Garden—and turn the restaurant’s two dining rooms, which seat 105, into a second location of an Italian restaurant he opened in Washington in May 2021. Chef Matt Adler is his partner in the Caruso’s Grocery concepts. (The name Caruso’s Grocery refers to a market Babin’s family ran in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, when he was growing up.)
The renovation, overseen by the original space’s designer, Catherine Hailey, didn’t require a huge investment, says Adler. They put up a wall to separate the bar from the restaurant. Owen’s Ordinary’s quaint, patterned wallpapers—one honey-colored, the other maroon—remain, as do wooden tables, herringbone reclaimed wood floors and blue, geometrically patterned upholstered banquettes. English manor house bookcases still divide the two dining rooms, but books have been switched out with Italian-themed tchotchkes and framed photos of weddings, men in military garb, nonnas cooking, etc. Those photos, plus silhouettes of staff members, fill wall space throughout.
Adler, 41, was born and raised in Garnerville, New York, 35 miles north of Manhattan. There, he earned his Italian red sauce bona fides working at Scoozi, a restaurant that his father, also a chef, owned from 1999 to 2009. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park in 2002, and by 2010 was working for Michael White, a James Beard Award-winning celebrity chef known for fine Italian cooking. Adler came to the DMV as an executive chef in 2013 when White’s company, the Altamarea Group, opened Osteria Morini in D.C.’s Navy Yard. He left in 2016 to join the Schlow Restaurant Group. Two years later, he started his own consulting business, teaming up with Babin on Caruso’s Grocery in 2020.
At Caruso’s, Adler doesn’t seek to reinvent the wheel. Instead, he focuses on the Italian fare many Americans grew up on, tweaking those dishes with technique (such as pasta-making—his gnocchi, cavatelli, bucatini, tagliatelle and frilly, ribbon-shaped mafaldine are made in-house) and sourcing the highest-quality ingredients for them. The cephalopods for Adler’s ultra-tender, semolina-battered fried calamari, for example, come from Rhode Island. “We tried 10 different vendors before settling on this one because there is so much bad calamari out there,” says Adler. “This one is probably the most expensive on the market. It’s my highest food cost item.”
Embrace the carb-a-thon that is Caruso’s and start a meal there with garlic bread, a loaf of semolina bread halved lengthwise, slathered with roasted garlic butter and sprinkled with seasonings (oregano, basil, fennel, red pepper flakes). After toasting, the halves are reassembled like a sandwich and cut into dunk-size slices for dipping into a rich, melty sauce made with gorgonzola, Parmesan, Pecorino and Asiago cheeses. For a less decadent starter, try the pork meatballs. To make them, Adler forms and freezes the balls, browns them while frozen and then braises them in tomato sauce. He learned this hack for warding off rubberiness from White.
I’ve not come across a pasta that disappoints at Caruso’s. Linguine in white clam sauce, made from a surfeit of chopped fresh Chesapeake clams and canned clams, has just the right balance of olive oil, white wine and lemon juice. For shrimp scampi, Adler takes his father’s recipe—sauteing the crustaceans with zucchini, cherry tomatoes, garlic, chili peppers and a splash of limoncello—and adds loads of butter to it, serving the lot over tagliatelle. It’s a splendid balance of sweetness, acid and luxuriance. Another seafood dish that shines is clams, mussels, squid and shrimp cooked fra diavolo style in a zesty tomato sauce and served on tagliatelle. My favorite pasta, though, is Adler’s version of Alfredo: mafaldine tangled in a thick, earthy ragout of porcini and cremini mushrooms and Marsala wine enriched with truffle butter and Parmesan cheese. It’s heavenly.
For entrees, Adler produces a lovely version of veal française, the cutlets dipped in an egg-and-Parmesan batter, sauteed and coated with lemon butter sauce. (Trout gets a similar treatment, with fried capers.) But the star of the show is the chicken Parm, which evokes happy memories of the one I often savored at Minutello’s when I was growing up in Pittsburgh. Adler pounds out a 7-ounce breast into a long, thin plank, coats it with seasoned breadcrumbs and fries it fast in the deep fryer to seal in moisture. Draped with a swath of melted mozzarella cheese, it fills a long oval plate on a throne of tomato sauce, surrounded by Parmesan cheese. It comes with a side of spaghetti marinara, so I already know what I’m having for lunch the next day.
For dessert, anyone would be satisfied with a sundae of mint chocolate chip ice cream, brownie bits, hot fudge and caramel and butterscotch chips, or the classic tiramisù whose ladyfingers are soaked with housemade coffee liqueur, but there’s another way to go that isn’t on the menu. Asked if the kitchen could make a sgroppino, an Italian slushie with sorbet and Prosecco, the server quickly obliged, bringing a coupe of raspberry sorbet surrounded by a Prosecco moat and splashed with limoncello. The cocktail refreshes and the extra touch of service does, too; they aim to please. Here’s another tip: You can also order items from the Owen’s Tavern menu. “I’m not encouraging cheeseburgers in the Caruso’s side,” says Adler. “But if people want one, there’s no use being sticklers about it.”
Overall Rating: A-
11820 Trade St., North Bethesda, 301-245-1226; carusosgrocery.com
FAVORITE DISHES: Antipasti dirty martini; tricolore salad; mafaldine Alfredo; fra diavolo seafood pasta; chicken Parmigiana; tiramisu
PRICES: Appetizers: $10.75 to $16.75; Pastas: $21.25 to $24.25; Entrees: $24.25 to $29.25; Desserts: $10.50 to $12.75
LIBATIONS: NRG’s spirits director Nick Farrell has put together a list of eight nicely crafted cocktails ($12), including a requisite espresso martini; a limoncellotini (basil-infused gin and housemade limoncello); a Manhattan made with an amaretto rinse; and a spritz made with cinnamon-infused Aperol, passion fruit and sparkling wine.
NRG’s Erin Dudley curated a superlative, all-Italian wine selection at Caruso’s, focusing on small producers. The menu offers 14 (3 sparklers, 4 whites, 1 rosé, 6 reds) of them by the glass ($12 to $15), half bottle ($33 to $45) and full bottle ($44 to $60). A wine bottle list features 48 others ($40 to $198), many of them biodynamic and organic. One section features sparkling red wines, often overlooked. The user-friendly menu lists the wines from the lightest to the heaviest.
Expect good beer here, because NRG’s beer director, Greg Engert, is one of the best in the business. Caruso’s and its bar, Owen’s Tavern & Garden, serves only draft beer, with preference given to Maryland breweries. The menu lists eight of them, among them Saga Brewing Company’s tiramisu milk stout ($8) and a Silver Branch Brewing Company blond ale ($7), but ask for the Owen’s Tavern ever-changing list of 50 draft beers for more choices.
SERVICE: Engaging and well-informed
This story appears in the March/April issue of Bethesda Magazine.