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Benvenuto Il Canale!

February 17, 2010

What takes two minutes, 900 degrees and your breath away? Hint: it's made by Enrico Sautto, a fifth generation Napoli pizzaolo, at the helm of a hand-made (non-mechanical) wood-burning oven with an inch of rock salt beneath its stones.  

Yes, it's pizza. Honestly, the best we've ever tasted. The new Italian restaurant of Sicilian-born restaurateur Giuseppe “Joe” Farruggio has a lot more to offer than thin-crust pizza, but to miss it would be to miss a wonder of Georgetown, if not the western world.  

Everything at Il Canale  is freshly made and authentically Italian (except the Chilewich, but more on that in a minute) just the way Joe likes it. With Naples on speed dial, the Bufala mozzarella (in tubs of water, never refrigerated), vine ripe tomatoes and basil arrive weekly giving new meaning to the concept of dining "local."

The family's journey to Georgetown began in 1970, when Joe and his brood left Agrigento on the southern coast of Sicily for New York with dreams of culinary success. Quickly learning the art of New York pizza, which Joe calls “Chevrolet-style,” he left the City to plant the tricolore in Woodbridge, Virginia, where he opened the first of five Joe’s area pizzerias with the help of his growing extended family.  In 2007, he consolidated and currently maintains locations in Arlington and Vienna.

Wanting only the best of everything for his signature restaurant, Joe started with executive chefs, Fabio Capestrano (with family restaurants in Florence and Livorno) and Paolo Buffa (a Milan-born chef with more than 20 years of culinary experience). There’s Alain Suissa, the general manager with a great memory for names and faces, and Frederick Drigo, my charming six language-speaking server. And the vino? That’s the domain of expert “Doreen from New York” who has assembled a selection of exceptional Italian wines.

When it came to décor, Joe went straight to award-winning McLean-based interior designer, Barbara Hawthorn. Under Barbara’s direction, there is custom lighting from Hinson Design Group, photography from Bill Armstrong (Impressionistic) and Richard Frasier( C&O Canal scenes), and table and floor coverings from Chilewich.

Il Canale can accommodate up to 120 guests, starting with its upstairs prima sala (main dining room) Look for the bright umbrellas on the upper terrazzo (patio) as soon as the snow is gone for good.  In the meantime, settle in near the pizza oven downstairs with a glass of wine (I started with a smooth Jermann Pinot Grigio) and peruse the menu.

Flavor rules (the risotto tastes like rice, not oatmeal) on the “healthy, not complicated Mediterranean” menu Fabio and Joe created which will change 3-4 times a year. Since its "Friends and Family" soft opening January 27th, Il Canale’s specialties have included La Mozzarella from Italian speaking buffalos and cows, and Frittura De Calamari e Zucchine (crispy tender calamari and zucchini served with a spicy marinara and sweet creamy mustard sauce).  Joe shared his secret for tenderizing squid.

He soaks it in milk before breading. I had a most spectacular Branzino al Cartoccio (Mediterranean sea bass baked in parchment paper, roasted vegetables, and potatoes in a salmoriglio sauce).

Joe’s favorite pizzas are his own creation, "Pizza Re" (Bufala mozzarella and Bolognese sauce) and the "Italia" (Bufala mozzarella, Prosciutto di Parma, baby arugula and shaved Grana Padano).

But for my first visit, I had to try the "Georgetown" (Bufala mozzarella, spinach, sausage and basil).




Frederick with my "Georgetown" Pizza

Rosario did the honors (Enrico was away), and it was the best pizza I have ever had anywhere.

By this time, Chef Fabio aka resident olive oil specialist, was explaining why he only marinates tomatoes in Affiorato extra virgin olive oil. Il Canale uses three kinds (all imported from Naples), but the Sapore D’Orr is strictly for salads while the Academia Barilla is reserved for pasta dishes.

Clearly I had a lot to learn. But not before dessert. Or shall I say desserts. I sampled them all (yes, really!) My favorite was the Zeppole Con Zabaglione (fried dough with Zabaglione cream).

But don’t forget the Sicilian cannolis and ricotta Tiramisu ... As for me, I can't...

Il Canale at 1061 31st Street (a few feet away from the C&O Canal) is open daily from 11:30 am (Sunday-Thursday till 11 pm and Friday - Saturday till midnight).

T 202.337.4444

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It Takes More Than Good Jeans To Be Urban Chic

February 11, 2010

I have to confess, when an unknown boutique specializing in denim and party dresses moved into the space formerly known as Cynthia Reed’s fabulous interior design showroom, I was a bit skeptical.  After all, it was 1,700 square feet, three times larger than the average Georgetown shop, and how much room did folded jeans really need, anyway?

But 26-year-old Lindsay Buscher was about to prove me wrong, and attract Georgetown fashionistas north from M Street in droves. With no advanced advertising save for mannequins guarding the front door, six years ago this month, there was a line up Wisconsin Avenue on Urban Chic’s opening day.

Lindsay’s childhood passion for fashion was about to become the family business.  Four stores and two children later, it’s not easy to tell the employees from the relatives. Graphic designer husband Chris’s specialties are computers, interior furnishings and signage.  Chris’s brother Dave designed the spirally logo, sister Courtney  is a buyer,  other sister Tiffany runs the office, and kids Emerson Rose and Chase help mom inspect the children’s lines (carried in all stores but Georgetown). And the staff? Well, they’re all Lindsay’s best friends.

It almost didn’t happen. Lindsay had been “crying every day” at the Northrop Grumman job she hated, and about to enroll in a ‘Women in Politics’ Program at American University after  earning  a Master’s degree in Public Administration when her then fiancé, Chris, gave her that fateful ‘push.’  It helped that her broker found the perfect not-yet-listed spot.  She signed the lease (no, she never considered any place but Georgetown), got married, and quit her job all in the same month!

At the time, her only company was Sugar and shoe boutique Sassanova across the street.

Georgetown remains the flagship store, and denim is still a mainstay. Her core lines are James, Joie, 7 For All Mankind and Citizens of Humanity.

Each store has its own personality. Georgetown is “the most fun,” where staff  know their customers and their family by first name. (With a loyal following, many have married and had kids since 2004.) The most fashion forward of the fleet, Georgetown has higher price points and more daring selections. Shoshanna’s (still Urban Chic’s all-time best seller) annual trunk show in April this year features 100 dresses...

Baltimore, the largest store so far (twice the size of Georgetown), opened in 2007 and caters to young professionals of both sexes,  has LOTS of denim and a great selection of  “good going out tops” as well as children’s clothing.

Style-conscious moms, their young children, and high school girls scout for the perfect prom dress in Bethesda (Milly and Tory Burch are popular).

Annapolis opened last year and caters to a nautically preppy (Lacoste and Vineyard Vines) 30-50 crowd (Diane von Furstenberg and Tory Burch) and their kids (Juicy).

What’s the secret to Urban Chic’s successful expansion in the midst of the country’s worst recession in 70 years?  “It’s not really a secret”, says Lindsay.  “We were devastated like everyone else when the bottom fell out in September of 2008.“ But she moved quickly and never considered the worst. Cutting Spring 2009 buying in half, lots of sales, and reluctantly asking staff to take pay cuts (all of them stayed) helped keep them afloat.  “Now we’re a lot more aware of everything, what’s being purchased and  buying patterns from the previous year,”  Lindsay explained.  Customers are definitely in a “buy now, wear now” mode, she continued. But didn’t it take more than trimming stock? Maybe it’s because they still have the best selection of designer dresses in town? Washingtonian magazine thinks so too, consistently naming Urban Chic best boutique in town.

Lindsay kept coming back to the fact that she loves her staff as much as she loves the business. On the floor with her team at least once a week at each location, she has more than 30 eclectic designers, some brand new and others that have been around a lot longer than Lindsay (Diane von Furstenberg comes to mind).  She’s always carried sizes from 0-12 and attracted clientele age 16-60.

And she touches everything, literally.  Her home garage is the office where all of the inventory is shipped before being personally delivered to one of the stores by Chris in the company’s white Dodge Sprinter.

Did I mention being down to earth? Lindsay kept reminding me and when it came time to take some “family” photos, I was convinced. Turns out, there wasn’t a tube of mascara on the premises. Neither Lindsay or anyone else on the floor was wearing  make-up (not that they needed any) and didn’t want their pictures taken! So don’t blame me that a leopard print tote by Rebecca Minkoff (her best selling handbag designer ) is the main focus in the store photo. Lindsay was carrying her MacBook Air in one when she left to check in at Bethesda.

Urban Chic is at 1629 Wisconsin Avenue. T 202.338.5398 www.urbanchiconline.com

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An Evening With Lucia and Poltrona Frau

January 28, 2010

January 27th is Holocaust Memorial Day in Italy. Thanks to my friend Ezio Mattiace, (President of Poltrona Frau here in Georgetown), I had the pleasure of attending a touching tribute at the Embassy of Italy on the life of a remarkable woman.

Olivia Fincato, a young journalist/filmmaker and photographer, Renato D’Agostin met Lucia Servadio Bedarida a month before she died. “Un Giorno con Lucia” ( A Day with Lucia) is the book and “Mama Rida”, the documentary they made on the life of an Italian Jewish woman who became Italy’s youngest doctor in 1922.

It's an incredible story. In the opening scene, Lucia is hang-gliding over Chamonix in the Italian Alps. She is 105.  

But the story starts very differently. Fleeing fascist Italy in 1939, she made her way to Tangiers and found acceptance in a Muslim country to pursue her medical career. After 40 years of work as a gynecologist in Morocco, she joined her daughters in the United States.  Her mother and grandmother who remained in Italy had been deported and killed. Lucia donated their last letters, written from Fossoli Camp, to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Mirella and Paola, two of Lucia’s three daughters, attended the event to share memories of their beloved mother. Italian Ambassador Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata spoke eloquently about the need to remember the more than 7,000 Italian Jews deported and killed in the Nazi camps during World War II.  And Stefano Beltrame, the Embassy’s Commercial Attache, introduced a film released this week in Italy about Platform 21, the main train terminal in Milan from which Italian Jews were deported to concentration camps. The film is meant for Italy’s current and future youth who have less and less connection with Holocaust survivors as time goes on.

It was a moving evening made ever more comfortable by the uplifting spirit of the guests, the warm reception by Rita Venturelli, Director of the Italian Cultural Institute, and the exquisite buttery leather seating of Poltrona Frau.

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