Sweet Success

Ovvio Osteria joins the restaurant boom in Merrifield.

Ovvio Osteria joins the restaurant boom in Merrifield.

Words  by Stefanie Gans    Photos by Jonathan Timmes

Photo by Jonathan Timmes.

It’s by far the best cake I’ve ever eaten,” says Jennifer Short. She’s speaking of her ricotta cake at Ovvio Osteria, and her statement is something I treasure, not just because I find myself admiring the simplicity of this pound cake-like slice, but because it’s often hard to find an artist who appreciates their own work.

Honey Ricotta Cake Photo by Jonathan Timmes.

Interviews with actors reveal the very famous not willing to watch their own movies. None of the writers I know (including myself) read their work after it’s printed. Any many of the chefs I interview have difficulty identifying a favorite dish. This isn’t to say Short, 29, communicated the slightest bit of narcissism. Before we placed drink orders one night a server told us, “Our desserts are the best. I’m not letting you leave here without dessert. I’m just not.”

Short is simply admitting that ricotta and honey, in cake form, is delicious. And it is. The slice is dense, but crumbly. To the side, heavy cream whipped with powdered sugar lands in sweet folds like a wind-blown beach towel. Atop the cake, translucent slices of fennel turn to candy after cooking in grapefruit syrup. The fennel ribbons are bright and sweet, barely vegetal, and just the right nod to Italian ingredients at the Italian-inspired Ovvio.

Ovvio translates to obvious; Diners will see pizzas with salami and pastas with clam. The restaurant opened in the new Halstead Square—minutes from the blocks of mostly fast-casual restaurants in the Mosaic District—with Blackfinn Ameripub and the local chain Lost Dog Cafe.

The owners scooped up Chris Watson for the executive chef position, who ran the kitchen at Brabo in the Lorien Hotel (which was developed by the same group that now owns Halstead), and also grabbed Short from that same Alexandria restaurant.

Watson spent three years cooking in different parts of Italy earlier in his career, including Bologna and outside of Naples, and says his time in Europe influences his menu today, although recipes here do not replicate any specific dishes.

Ovvio follows a classic appetizer-entree-dessert menu unlike many restaurants currently serving small plates, share plates or however a tiny-portioned, over-priced dish is termed; It’s refreshing to follow an order sometimes.

Like our server, I’m most enthusiastic about the desserts, but there is still plenty of joy in the savory. A starter salad incorporating a vertical parade of raw and braised vegetables dresses in a bright, but not overpowering, lemon vinaigrette. Chicken poached in olive oil was a standout, especially its side of rapini sautéed to a creamy loveliness. The pizzas are straightforward, but opt for one with toppings (the margherita is not exciting), such as the pie with palm-sized rounds of salami, cooked until crisp which brings texture but also, as my dining companion noted, lets the meat grip the cheese, avoiding the notorious sliding-off toppings.

Photo by Jonathan Timmes.

Braised pork cheeks are fall-apart good, as is the creamy, buttery polenta, but the jus carries as much depth as a nominee, not an award-winner—and at $25, it should make us cry at the podium. Of the season pumpkin ravioli—the gourd receiving even more play than Jennifer Lawrence—fails to spark when tucked inside the doughy squares. The flavor is all pumpkin, and as any pumpkin spice latte fan knows, the allure of the drink is the combination of seasonings. Here, the pumpkin stands alone in a brown butter sauce too simple to elevate the dish.

But as you know, dinner ends in a sugar high. Short creates a varied list with dishes in the chocolaty, nutty, creamy and fruity categories. The gianduja Bavarian is a mousse-like block of light hazelnuttiness with a banana caramel sauce pureed with rum. Hazelnuts cooked in sugar and then baked, re-crystallize to form a puff, and a welcome crunch to the creamy dessert. (Although caramelized banana doesn’t work as well alone in a $3 scoop of gelato.)

Ovvio is among the first of the chef-driven restaurants to open in the booming Merrifield (Sea Pearl and Four Sisters have been there for years), which will continue to enjoy an onslaught of new restaurants—especially the Southern and Mid-Atlantic-inspired Gypsy Soul by the James Beard winner R.J. Cooper, scheduled to open next year. For now, Ovvio enjoys the advantage of offering thoughtful food when quickie salads and sandwiches are more readily available. 

Ovvio Osteria

The lunch deal is an unbeatable two-courses for $12.

Appetizers: $11 – 16; Entree: $17 – 28

Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner; brunch on the weekend.
2727 Merrilee Drive, Merrifield; ovvioosteria.com

(January 2014)