Chef Matt Adler makes certain each item on the menu will be the best Italian-American dish you ever eat.
Spaghetti and meatballs, calamari, penne alla vodka — you’ll find all the hits on the Caruso’s Grocery menu, and not a foam, gel or “modern interpretation” in sight. For chef and partner Matt Adler, who came to D.C. as Osteria Morini’s opening chef, that’s intentional: Quality ingredients and great cooking techniques come first. This year, the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington nominated him for their Chef of the Year award. We spoke with Adler to learn more about his inspiration, favorite items on the Capitol Hill spot’s menu and recommendations for the perfect way to end an Italian-American dinner.
District Fray: How would you describe your career as a chef?
Matt Adler: I always had a deep love and passion for Italian food: My father ran an Italian restaurant in upstate New York called Scoozi, and I spent a lot of time traveling in Italy and learning about regional cuisine. But I ran away from that as quickly as possible once I went to culinary school. When I was young, I wanted to cook fancy food — I didn’t have a lot of respect for Italian-American cooking at the time. My background is in contemporary French cooking, and I did that for a long time, working in Boston and New York.
How did you come to be chef-partner at Caruso’s?
Michael Babin [of Neighborhood Restaurant Group] approached me in 2019 — he was developing The Roost food hall and he needed a chef to help guide the project for him. He said he was interested in opening an Italian-American restaurant in the space next door. I hadn’t really thought about that food in a long time and I was excited about it. I wrote a menu and after a couple conversations, we agreed on this partnership.
Caruso’s is not a chef’s interpretation of the classics. It’s classics, period. Why is that so important?
Our ethos is not, “Oh, wow, how can I interpret chicken parm?” It’s, “How do we make the best possible chicken parm?” You want thinly pounded chicken breast, the best possible parmesan and great tomatoes to make a really beautiful, robust sauce. And while the idea of a grandma in Italy making all the pasta at a restaurant is great, how do you produce that at volume and keep the quality? That’s why technique is huge.
Any signature dishes on the Caruso’s menu you want to highlight that are fond favorites for you?
I’ll tell you about three dishes I really love. This first one comes directly from my dad’s restaurant in New York: mozzarella in carrozza — layers of bread with roasted garlic herb puree and mozzarella cheese that’s breaded and fried. It’s often served with marinara sauce, and if you want to get really classic, with a lemon-anchovy sauce. Next, linguine and clams: We use local fresh clams, as well as canned clams we buy directly from Italy. Plus clam juice, so it’s ultra-clammy. Then we make a white clam sauce with sliced garlic, lemon juice, white wine and herb butter, and use De Cecco linguine for our pasta. We make our linguine and clams extra saucy, so you can use garlic bread to run through the sauce after. And, finally, veal francese: classic battered cutlets in a lemon-butter sauce. It’s the second most popular item on our menu, and people have really gravitated towards it.
And what about drinks?
We do get a little creative with our cocktails, like a martini made with limoncello, or our antipasti martini made with mozzarella brine — that was developed by our cocktail director, Nick Farrell. When it comes to wine, we have an affordable wine program focusing on small producers with good production practices throughout Italy — it’s not stuff you’ll find in the supermarket.
What’s the best way to end an Italian-American meal?
There’s always a robust dessert menu in these restaurants. At Caruso’s, I would share either our tiramisu or our cheesecake with strawberry sauce — we call it Brooklyn-style, because it’s that classic cheesecake first made famous at Junior’s in Brooklyn. Digestif-wise, you can’t go wrong with limoncello
or sambuca — we make both in house.
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