Thu 11 Mar 2010
The changes that have altered the American restaurant scene over the last thirty years are staggering. No less staggering is the fact that going back those thirty years now lands us squarely in 1980. I remember the 80s!
Along the way, our approach to ‘ethnic’ foods has undergone a significant shift of its own. Just as we’ve come to value regional specialties and local ingredients in our own cooking, we’ve developed an appreciation for the fact that very few countries have a single national cuisine. For me, that change is most noticeable in Italian restaurants.
Today, you’re far more likely to find an Italian restaurant focusing on the cuisine of Calabria or the seafood of Sicily than you are to find a one-size-fits-all red sauce joint. It’s a mark of respect – we’re acknowledging that the various kingdoms and nation-states that eventually came together to form Italy had (and still have) their own culinary traditions and specialties. But sometimes you just long for the classics: fettucine alfredo, insalata caprese, veal scallopine.
Sure, you could go to the Olive Garden to scratch that itch, but it’s far more fulfilling to seek out the real deal. Thankfully, Washingtonians need only head into Old Town Alexandria to find the genuine article alive and well on King Street. Landini Brothers has been owned and operated by the eponymous siblings and their children since 1979, and it shows through in everything. Everything.
A taste of Italian-American tradition after the jump.
Our most recent visit to Landini Brothers was a welcome return for us after far too long away. We took my family, grateful for Landini Brothers’ massive seating capacity inside two adjoining warehouses from Alexandria’s shipping heyday. In addition to a bar area and two large dining rooms downstairs, they offer an upstairs dining room that features three semi-private dining areas where parties as large as 20 can gather and another open space.
Throughout the space, low ceilings, dark wood and exposed brick combine to create a cozy and welcoming environment. The feeling is hard to describe…it’s not like you’ve been welcomed into someone’s home, but it definitely gives a sense of belonging. Whether you’re dining with a date or gathering the whole family, you feel like you’re part of something bigger.
We arrived a few minutes early for our reservation, and after checking our coats we were shown to an upstairs table almost immediately. The attentive service at Landini Brothers can be both an asset and a liability. While we never had to wait to have a water glass refilled, we had at least three different servers offer to take food and drink orders from us, resulting in some confusion and delays.
Even Landini Brothers tries to localize their cuisine these days, describing their menu (and their hospitality) as coming from the Tuscan tradition. What does that mean for you? For one thing, it indicates a focus on grilled meats and chicken that shows through in an entire section of the menu. But the majority of the menu reads like a who’s who of Italian-American favorites.
Tortellini in Brodo is a simple dish of veal-filled pasta with parmesan cheese in chicken broth. It’s the kind of comfort food that comfort food turns to when it needs to be comforted. The flavors are subtle but impressive, and although it appears as an appetizer it can easily be paired with another starter or a salad for a completely satisfying meal.
Linguine alla Pescatora tosses thin, flat noodles with sea scallops, shrimp, clams, mussels and squid. The dish is redolent with garlic, but the dominant flavor is somehow the brine of the sea. When the kitchen gets everything right, each individual component is cooked to the perfect degree of doneness and it’s an al dente delight. Even when it’s only mostly right, it still packs a big, flavorful punch. Shellfish and calamari are the seafoods that Landini Brothers works with most frequently (though they also offer a fish of the day), so you can trust that they know how to handle them.
Agnolotti alla Fiorentina are ravioli-like pillows of pasta filled with spinach and cheese. Their rich, buttery sauce is very similar to that of an alfredo, but the pasta themselves are light and delicate. Somehow the filled pastas seem nearly weightless, a testament to the skill of those who craft them.
There are definitely some dishes that don’t quite live up to their potential, most notably the Caprese. We’ve been spoiled by heirloom tomatoes…we admit it. As a result, tomatoes are a “sometimes food,” not an “all the time” food. When they’re this far out of season, their blandness can only detract from the flavors of quality olive oil, fresh mozzarella and basil that make up the rest of the dish.
In addition to the fish of the day, you can expect to be offered a raft of additional specials, usually including an appetizer, a pasta dish and something from the grill. During our visit, one of the specials was stracciatella, the Italian version of egg drop soup. At Landini Brothers, their version included escarole and shredded chicken to accompany the egg and the seasonings in a hearty combination that was reminiscent of Italian Wedding Soup (without the meatballs, of course).
Meatballs are one thing you won’t find on Landini Brothers’ menu, but when it comes to the classics they’ve got most of the rest well covered. They even offer cappuccino, espresso and Italian liqueurs to wash down your meal or to accompany a rich, tasty dessert. If you’re looking for the kind of Italian food and setting that will take you back, Landini Brothers has yet to let us down.