First Taste: Alta Strada Mosaic

A rocky start for this neighborhood spot.

Photo by Scott Suchman

James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Schlow burst onto the D.C. dining scene when he opened the wildly popular Tico on 14th Street NW in summer 2014, and the Boston-based restaurateur has ambitiously opened six spots in the area since then. Alta Strada Mosaic is his latest, the fourth link in a mini-chain of neighborhood Italian restaurants that aim to be crowd-pleasers with their straightforward pizzas, pastas and entrees.

Those who follow the D.C. food scene were impressed when Schlow recently lured former Osteria Morini chef Matt Adler and pastry chef Alex Levin from the Navy Yard stunner. In his new role, Adler oversees all Italian concepts within the group — including the Mosaic kitchen presided over by chef Nicole Belverd, formerly of Zaytinya and the Inn at Little Washington. Levin now serves as executive pastry chef for all Schlow restaurants, including those in New England and Los Angeles.

The culinary dream team is slowly putting its stamp on the Alta Strada Mosaic menu, though Adler says they are mainly where they want to be, aside from seasonal tweaks like switching out heavier dishes such as short ribs for a lighter steak entree. He adds that the Mosaic District runs an outstanding farmers market that he plans to draw from when spring produce season ramps up and local stone fruits, melons and tomatoes are in plentiful supply.

Eggplant Parm. Photo by Scott Suchman

The Food

All pastas and pizzas are house-made, and several of the dishes featured on this menu have proved tried and true at other Alta Strada locations. For instance, I loved the white pizza flecked with rosemary and the “mascaporeos” dessert — a sort of DIY whoopie pie — at the downtown D.C. location (but didn’t try them here in the interest of stomach space). Instead, my table started with the eggplant parm, a dish that turned out to be disappointing if you’re an eggplant lover because the vegetable is completely lost under its thick fried casing. The tomato sauce that accompanied it was authentic and flavorful, but I found myself flicking the frico chips — that’s a baked, cheesy crisp — from the top of the eggplant because its sharpness overpowered the dish.

I felt equally conflicted about the margherita pizza and the shrimp linguini that followed. Pizzas are cooked in a deck oven, which Adler notes is different from the wood-burning stone oven found downtown. They didn’t have the space for a fancier oven at Mosaic, he says, and anyway, “Michael likes the pizzas out of this oven best. It makes a crispier, more consistent crust.” Schlow has noted in the past that the Alta Strada pizza is a hybrid of New York, Roman and Neapolitan-style pies, which accounts for the sturdier crust. But I was mystified by the zesty, long-cooked tomato sauce on the A.S. House Margherita pizza, which lacked that really fresh tomato taste I associate with a classic margherita. The basil was also cooked well beyond green, the cheese was in short supply, and the top was doused in red chile flakes — an ingredient not mentioned on the menu and also not normally found on this type of pizza. Adler says the chile flakes were intended to provide just a touch of heat, but the effect was much spicier, and he admitted it’s something they’re considering tweaking based on customer feedback.

Linguine with shrimp and crushed cherry tomatoes. Photo by Rina Rapuano

As for the pasta, my party opted for the linguine with shrimp and crushed cherry tomatoes but we were put off by the level of acid in the dish. A first taste made me think there was vinegar in there, but then I realized it was just an overdose of lemon juice, which didn’t mix well with the tomato sauce. On the bright side, the shrimp were sweet, succulent and perfectly cooked, and we happily dug through the pasta to fish them out.

It was tough to resist those signature mascaporeos, but this fan of Levin’s desserts wanted to focus on what he brings to the table. The almond cream tartlet, topped with gemlike grapefruit segments and amarena cherries from Bologna, then flanked by a scoop of velvety vanilla gelato, was worth the sacrifice.

Cheesecake. Photo by Scott Suchman

Bar Buzz

The wines-by-the-glass list appropriately sticks with Italian-grown grapes, such as a Sauvignon Blanc from Friuli and a Chianti Classico Riserva from Tuscany. Similarly, the cocktails list is a delight for anyone who loves Campari and any variety of Negroni. Happy hour takes place weekdays from 3-6 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 10 p.m.-midnight, when margherita and bianco pizzas go for $8 (normally $15 and $16, respectively), select wines sell for $6 and cocktails range from $6-$8. I’d quite happily spend an afternoon at the blue-hued bar drinking Negronis with friends or while waiting for a table.

Almond cream tartlet. Photo by Scott Suchman

The Vibe

As you would hope for in a neighborhood gathering place, Alta Strada successfully conveys a welcoming spirit toward everyone — families with young children, groups of friends, couples on date night, dinner with the parents, you name it. The service is gracious and competent, the design feels both comfortable yet chic, and the bar program is tight.

Go, Wait or Skip?

Wait. With less than a month under its belt, Alta Strada Mosaic is still finding its way. The talent is there, the service is warm and the space is gorgeous, so I have full faith that the ship will be righted soon.

Alta Strada Mosaic serves dinner from 5-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and from 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Brunch is served Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Weekday lunch will debut soon. 2911 District Ave., #150, Fairfax; 703-280-0000; www.altastrada-mosaic.com.

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