Monday, April 5, 2010 at 10:59AM
*Post by Angela.
Expectations are funny things. Whenever I go to a restaurant with low expectations, I often find myself giving the thumbs up to dishes I would have merely tolerated at a "better" restaurant. The reverse is also true - whenever I go to a restaurant with high expectations, I tend to be more quick to disappointment with dishes that I would have loved somewhere else. We experienced the latter feeling the other night, when we finally made it to Potenza on the corner of 15th and H Street after hearing nothing but rave reviews from a number of friends and Twitter people. The service was okay, and the dishes were solid, but with the exception of one of our appetizers, nothing we ate was particularly memorable. I'd go again for a quick and casual dinner (or for happy hour - the bar is gorgeous), but think I'll turn elsewhere if I want great Italian food.
When we walked into the restaurant for our 5 pm reservation, there were already quite a few parties waiting to be seated. We were told by the host that we'd be seated in a few moments, but we sat for probably 10 minutes before being shown to our table. I was a little confused, since the restaurant was mostly empty, but it was no big deal.
The decor was an interesting mix of modern and Old World-y, and set a casual tone for the dining experience. Mark noted that at first, he thought it looked a little tacky, but it grew on him. We both liked that the kitchen was open.
Potenza has some fun-looking cocktails, and so Mark ordered the Vespa, Tagliatella liquor, cherry infused grappa, blood orange, Prosecco, fresh lemon and orange bitters served in a chilled martini glass with an orange sugared rim. I think I liked the drink more than he did - it wasn't overly sweet, but had a nice tartness.
We started with a bread basket, which I liked for its variety, if not for the actual bread itself (which was okay). Mark liked the bread, but I sort of expected better (expectation raises its ugly head again!), considering that Potenza has its own bakery. But it was accompanied by a really great balsamic vinegar & olive oil mixture (sorry, no pic!) with chunks of garlic and onion.
At our server's suggestion, we got the Arancini alla Salsiccia di Cinghiale, fried risotto balls stuffed with wild boar sausage and provolone. I loved these. The rice was perfectly cooked - tender, but firm - and didn't overwhelm the fantastic flavor of the sausage, which was a little nutty and slightly sweet. The risotto balls were served atop a creamy, herb-y sauce that Mark really liked. I could have eaten two (or three!) more plates of this.
Arancini alla Salsiccia di Cinghiale
We also got the Rucola e Portobello, listed with arugula, portobello, charred lemon and olive oil. Both Mark and I had a couple of problems with this dish. First and foremost, look at the charred lemon. Wait, no, you can't, because there wasn't any! Which was a shame, because we were looking forward to it. Secondly, it was just kind of a boring dish, and something I could have thrown together at home. That being said, the mushrooms were nicely cooked. The fact that this dish didn't go over that well with us is partially our own fault - we should learn to order better.
Rucola e Portobello
For my entree, I got the Rigatoni and Sunday gravy, with meatball, spicy fennel sausage, spare rib, brasciole, and ricotta. I really liked the various meats - each was cooked until fork-tender, and nicely seasoned. The rigatoni was a little too al dente for my liking, but Mark didn't have a problem with the firmness. What he did have a problem with was the sauce - he thought it was too watery. I didn't mind it as much, although from the "gravy" in the title, I was expecting something much thicker.
Rigatoni and Sunday Gravy
Mark ordered the Gnocchi agli Spinaci, which was listed on the menu as containing "spinach gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce and toasted walnuts." When the dish made it to the table, Mark was pleasantly surprised by the inclusion of cauliflower. He was halfway through the dish when all of a sudden, he looked up and asked, "Is this meat?" Sure enough, the dish also included some sort of meat, but we're not sure what it was, although Mark theorized that it was probably veal. Now, while the meat was unexpected, it wasn't necessarily a problem for either of us. But, it would have been a really BIG problem for a vegetarian diner. I kind of think that MEAT is something that should always be listed as an ingredient. Apart from the surprise meat (which was pretty tender, actually), we both liked the dish okay. The texture of the gnocchi was absolutely perfect, soft and pillow-y, but neither of us was crazy about the sauce, which didn't taste of gorgonzola at all. Also, the "toasted walnuts" must have been hanging out smoking in the alley with the charred lemon from our salad, because they had seemingly been replaced by black olives and the cauliflower. We sat and wondered if maybe the wrong dish had been brought to our table, but there are no other gnocchi dishes on the menu.
Gnocchi agli Spinaci
Anyway, we also got a side of creamy polenta (which the server had forgotten to put in, and so it came after we were already finished with our entrees). Mark has ordered polenta at Italian places a couple of times now, and both times he's been disappointed, but I'm pretty sure it's because he thinks it'll be more firm (like the polenta you buy in tubes at the store). I liked Potenza's polenta just fine - true to the menu, it was very creamy, and well-seasoned to boot.
Because we had a long night ahead of us (drinks with friends and then a Vampire Weekend show!) we decided to skip dessert. We walked out of the restaurant full but a little disappointed - from all the recommendations we got for Potenza, we were both expecting something special and ended up getting what seemed like kind of a mediocre meal. I think that maybe if we had gone in without such high expectations, we would have enjoyed it a lot more. Knowing what I know now, if I was in the area, I'd go back, but I can get as good, if not better Italian food closer to home.