It's difficult to go wrong with Italian cooking and Il Mulino satisfies as comfort food in a pinch.
A little background on the scene before I dive into the food: Il Mulino is in a not terribly impressive area of Washington, DC -- Vermont Avenue, north of the McPhearson Square Metro. There are lots of businesses and law firms and things get quiet after rush hour. I've eaten at Il Mulino three times, each time for a business lunch. And each time, the restaurant was mostly empty, and the service slow. When I ate there on Thursday with five colleagues, we were one of four tables with customers.
Il Mulino first opened in New York City by chefs Fernando and Gino Masci. The restaurant's website boasts that it was voted best Italian restaurant in New York City for two decades by Zagat's. Il Mulino is located in 13 different cities, including Tokyo, Las Vegas, Aspen, and San Juan. My recent experience at Il Mulino doesn't motivate me to go back, but I am curious about the flagship in New York City.
Now, the meal: We started with a bread basket -- white, wheat, and seasoned bread crisps. The white bread was fantastic: it was so soft and tasted fresh. Along with the bread was a plate of diced eggplant that had been sauteed in olive oil and herbs -- it was delicious. The combination of the eggplant on soft, white bread was utterly satisfying. Perhaps I should have ordered another round and called it a day. But no.
I don't know how much time passed from when we ordered our main course (no one ordered an appetizer) but it was enough time for us to discuss a number of current events, a few work issues, and learn that our summer intern had gone skydiving the previous weekend -- this was big news. Two people at our table inquired about the mechanics of Facebook and we spent some time explaining that. I was surprised to learn that I had more Facebook friends than the summer intern.
The main course finally arrived. I had ordered the gnocchi in tomato sauce with mozzarella -- all of it appeared to have been glopped on to the plate. Several large balls of mozzarella were planted in the gnocchi and rapidly melted from the heat of cooking. As I ate, the mozzarella went from warm and soft to cooling and chewy.
The portion was large, enough for two people really. I had not eaten breakfast and was sure I was going to finish it all, but I didn't. You can go both ways with gnocchi: I've had gnocchi that didn't taste or feel heavy in the belly, and then there was this gnocchi at Il Mulino that weighed me down. I did not eat fast but I had to catch my breath a few times. I love tomato sauce with pasta and am partial to sauces that are runny, rather than thick. The sauce with this gnocchi was perfectly salted but the texture -- not runny or thick -- tasted as if a step had been missed or it needed to stew a little longer.
A colleague and friend (and also a curmudgeon) ordered mushroom ravioli, off menu. I thought that was a nice touch. I discussed with him my thoughts about Il Mulino and he remarked, "It's a shell of it's former self." He noted that the menu used to be robust and interesting, and claims Il Mulino has seen more customers. When the menu was passed around at the start of the meal, two people at our table noted that the menu was scaled back. I have nothing against simple, paired down menus, but the options at Il Mulino were limited.
1110 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20005