Justly renowned for its food markets, the Strip District is less of a destination for sit-down, social dining. It does have restaurants, and good ones. It’s just that, with Downtown at one end and Lawrenceville at the other, it’s tempting to see on those more vigorous dining districts and skip right over the blocks in between.
Lately, though, we’re seeing signs that the Strip might be on the verge of bridging the gap with a dining culture of its own. One such sign is DiAnoia’s in the little white building at the corner of Penn and 25th that, until recently, housed a bridal shop signified by an oversized wedding-cake topper.
As DiAnoia’s, the building still houses a marriage of sorts. Aimee DiAndrea and Dave Anoia have joined their names, their lives and their talents to create a sneakily ambitious Italian café, bakery, deli, bar, micro-market and casual sit-down restaurant. She decorates, he cooks, and the combination is a recipe for an instant destination.
DiAnoia’s interior is bright in both lighting and color scheme, dominated by cheerful whites and Adriatic blues. The dining room, with big garage doors facing the street corner, has intimate, marble-topped café tables and one big, tall table for large groups topped with a lacquered slice of tree trunk. The other operations are on the other side of the floor plan, but a big doorway and an open set of shelves connect the two for a sense of harmony and exploration.
Similarly, a paper menu presents a simple selection of antipasto, pasta, entrees and sides. Simple, but ambitious: The pasta is all housemade, including complex shapes like cresto di gallo (rooster’s comb), as is the sausage. Some preparations are elaborate combinations like charred radicchio with caramelized shallots, fennel, spinach, gorgonzola and walnuts; others are fearlessly simple, such as porchetta piled atop a focaccia (with no sauce), or raw branzino with sea salt and olive oil.
We fancy ourselves connoisseurs of greens and beans, and almost never pass up an opportunity to order it; as a result, we’ve sampled probably hundreds of versions. For all that, DiAnoia’s is one of the few standouts. Its excellence was largely due to its proportions, with crumbled hot sausage, creamy cannellini and chopped, wilted escarole sharing the lead. The broth, based on chicken stock, held the dish’s elemental flavors together with rich, savory substance.
A cold salad of braised octopus, local red potatoes and celery was also superb. The potatoes and diced celery were perfectly at home in a lemon vinaigrette that let the fruity olive oil come forward. And the tentacles were lusciously tender without a hint of rubberiness. Great octopus is good enough to take center stage, but it was a pleasure to enjoy it with a strong supporting cast.
All seven pasta dishes were enticing, from basic cacio e pepe to exotic squid-ink spaghetti aglio e olio. The latter was a masterpiece: the white rings of squid graphically striking against the black pasta, while another deceptively minimalist sauce highlighted the primary ingredients without shrinking into the background. The use of chili oil in the aglio e olio, plus mellow cooking, kept the garlic from dominating either the mild squid or the briny, inky noodles.
This would be a standout dish on any menu in the city, but it was far from our only good plate of pasta. Vitello pappardelle used pulled osso bucco and braised carrots to create a hearty, deeply satisfying, almost stew-like dish, sauced with rich veal stock. The aforementioned cresto was baked into a casserole with sausage, roasted red peppers, vodka sauce and slices of fresh mozzarella browned into a sort of creamy crust on top. There just wasn’t much of the vodka sauce, though, and it lacked the kick that it usually gets from the booze and pepperoncini, though this is just the kind of zip a pasta bake can really use.
There were no complaints about the porchetta. On feast days, this dish is an entire pig, deboned and spit-roasted; more practically for an everyday dinner, it’s pork loin wrapped in pork belly, the fatty cut basting the lean, and the skin crisping up. Here, it was served sliced thin and piled atop a big slab of focaccia with a cup of savory drippings on the side. All of the meat was swooningly succulent, but we especially loved how its character shifted from bite to bite as different cuts took prominence. The leftovers made an insanely great sandwich.
DiAnoia’s deserves your attention all day from your morning coffee and pastry to your late nightcap, excelling in every facet (did we mention the great service?). Anoia and DiAndrea have achieved the extraordinary: In an odd location with no culinary history, they’ve created easily one of the top Italian restaurants in the city.