Caruso’s Grocery

Image: Pork Chop

Last Updated: December 2021

Current Status: Open for sit-down service.

Overview: Caruso’s Grocery serves up a revived take on the American mid-century version of Italian restaurants.  It not only brings to mind places with straw-covered wine bottles, chicken parm covered in red sauce, and Louis Prima playing, it is a recreation of those places.  There was a time when we said, “let’s get Italian” and this is what we meant.  For Caruso’s this presents a challenge.  They must walk a fine line of presenting something nostalgic but not something stale or hokey, much like those behind Lucky Danger are doing with the American version of Chinese food.  To a large degree they succeed, especially with the food.  As for the setting, we have some qualms.

Caruso’s menu, on the surface, is not that far from abbondanza factories like Carmine’s or Buca di Beppo.  However, the dishes are prepared with care and craft that transcend cliché versions and takes it out of the food factory category.  Yes, they do spaghetti and meatballs and Penne alla Vodka.  But they do a very serious ragu and an alfredo with truffle butter.  The garlic bread is a nod to the old school version but with much better ingredients.  The meat plates are serious commitments with servings meant to be shared or spread over several meals like the chicken parm and pork chop.  Both of which were done very well, with the chicken being the more straight-forward of the two.  This seems to be a pattern on the menu.  For every basic dish (albeit expertly done with good ingredients) there is a dish requiring a bit more finesse.

Caruso’s is part of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group.  The name is taken from NRG’s Jeff Babin, whose Sicilian great-great grandfather had a store by the same name in Baton Rouge.  The beverage list leans on NRG’s strengths.  The beer list includes selections from NRG’s Bluejacket brewery and reflect a company that also own beer-focused places like ChurchKey and The Sovereign.  The cocktails are a creative mix, but designed to keep them all at the $10 mark. They include a Martini that does not stop at olives but also includes a tomato and mozzarella chunk on the stick – just when you thought caprese was all played out.  The Godfather Manhattan includes a splash of Amaretto.  The wine list is less interesting but does remain affordable.  The by the glass list also is served as half or full bottles.

We sat at a high-top in the bar area that required some juggling to accommodate the assorted plates, but the servers were attentive and friendly and threw on an extra dessert after we settled on one but clearly wanted to try two. There are reports of service glitches as they continue to sort things out, but those appear to be more one-offs than systematic.

As noted above, Caruso’s is walking a fine line.  It is attempting to fill a narrow niche in a location not likely to get foot traffic.  Mangialardo’s just up the street proves that filling a niche well can be successful.  If you are looking for a very good version of a classic red-sauce joint, the list is short and Caruso’s is on it.

Also as noted above, there was one thing that seemed off.  We are far enough removed from the original generation of red-sauce joints that to bring one back goes beyond mere nostalgia.  The originals were already kitschy, bordering on camp.  Yes, the straw-covered Chianti bottles are a fun thing to see (Ghibellina had them too), but they were also a marketing gimmick helping to undermine the wine region reputation – quite the fiasco.  Red/Orange leather (or is it vinyl) banquets and black and white photos that are digitally reproduced to be hung in frames add to the fabrication of the recreated memory.  Caruso’s is almost like an alternative Westworld land of Italian immigrants with the requisite nod to The Godfather on the cocktail list.  One might wonder if this place could exist if A.V. Ristorante still was around, or would the time-space continuum reject an original and a copy existing at the same time.  Some might embrace the anachronism, but others might find it manipulative enough to be slightly unsettling.  None of this is to discourage from going.  Nor do we doubt the obvious earnestness of Babin and Chef Matt Adler, who is channeling his family’s restaurant in upstate New York.  Just a thought for designers to chew on.

Other Guidance:  The place is nice but not formal, much like the places it is trying to recreate.  Jeans are appropriate.  GF and vegetarians will have to pick there way through the menu.  The Post’s Accessibility guidance is:  No barriers at the entrance, but wheelchair users might need assistance with the two front doors; ADA-compliant restrooms.

Gift Cards (Appears to be good for whole Roost complex)


Cuisine: Italian
Neighborhood: Capitol Hill (Hill East)
Address: 914 14th St SE, Washington, DC 20003
Reservations: Open Table

Other Critics/Voices:

Washington Post: Tom’s initial review (unrated during pandemic) was fawning.  Eve Zibart in 1997 took a tour of D.C.’s red-sauce joints, including A.V., and also noted the way the places embraced kitsch and camp.

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