Declaration

Between parties, being out of town, and revisiting old favorite spots, it’s been a few weeks so I was excited to start trying out some new places and Declaration was next on the list, mostly because I had seen it during our visits to Hazel and Haikan. I associate only good things with those places, plus then I found out that Declaration specializes in pizza so it was a shoe-in for family fun Friday.

I was excited when we were seated and found out about the special tasting menu that is a glorified version of Panera’s U-Pick-2 deal. My father-in-law and I decided to choose opposite tasting menu dishes for the full effect. My husband ordered the cheesesteak, my mother-in-law ordered the Thomas Heyward pizza, which Declaration bills as its most popular choice. We also were lured in by deviled eggs and the brussels sprouts appetizer. In this family, we never turn down either of those.

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The deviled eggs were good but very garlicky. I appreciated the simplicity and the strong, classic flavor. The sprouts were perfectly crispy and served with golden raisins, green apples, and a glob of melty bleu cheese. I cook sprouts approximately once a week, and order them in a restaurant almost that often too, and it’s rare that I’ve had ones this good. The salty-sweet-funky combo went so well with the crispy, bitter veggie. Declaration set me up with high hopes for the main meal.

My mother-in-law’s pizza and half of my father-in-law’s tasting menu meal came out first. Yep–looks like a pizza:

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It tasted like a pizza. It was light on toppings, particularly the pepperoni. If you happen to be looking for interesting specialty pizza, this was not it. You could have told me this was from Paisano’s and I would have believed you (and I love Paisano’s for what it is: a no-frills choose-your-own-adventure place where pizza doesn’t cost a gimmicky $17.76).

My husband’s cheesesteak arrived. I had a little bite of this meaty, bready, mayo-y concoction. If you, like him, are trying to eat as much as possible, this may be the sandwich for you! It had vegetables and nicely-caramelized onions, which put it a step above the average cheesesteak in my mind (although I’m from California and admittedly have no appreciation for authentic Philly sandwiches).

Then I waited. And waited. I took another little bite of the pizza. I waited some more. Then one-half of my tasting meal arrived: the branzino (note: this photo shows the acutal size of the food).

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I take back all the bad things I said about Kith/Kin and their tiny baby food. I regret that there’s no way to correctly judge the size of the food in this picture, but the carrots on the plate are regular-to-small sized baby carrots. That branzino was approximately 1.5 inches long. It’s okay to have food this size if you’re at, say, Komi and you’re going to be served twelve courses. At Declaration, this was my main meal. And it was served before my salad but somehow still ten minutes after everyone else’s food. It tasted good, but at what cost?

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Here’s the salad I got, approximately ten minutes after finishing my fish. I could have made a more imaginative salad at the Whole Foods salad bar (I know this specifically because I do exactly that every single weekend).

I can’t even review the drinks or my father-in-law’s food because no amount of fairly-good steak could make up for the sins Declaration committed against fish and pizza.

Price: $35 per person.

Bottom line: If you want cheap, boring pizza, go to Paisano’s. If you want interesting pizza, go to Bacio or Little Coco’s or Ghibellina. If you want a bowl of arugula, go to Whole Foods. Leave this one to the tourists. You’ve been warned.

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Ghibellina

It’s taken me an embarrassing amount of time to actually get here, due in no small part to the inflated price tag and the main offerings of pasta and pizza, which I am generally not particularly enamored of. But! It was my mother-in-law’s birthday, and cheese and pizza (and cheese pizza) are kind of her things, so here we go!

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We ordered drinks–some standard IPA’s and the bicicletta rossa cocktail for me (dry and herbal)–and their cheese board. Since the untimely demise of Sona creamery (RIP, never forget), I don’t know where one could find a better cheese board than this. They clearly chose these carefully as they were all very different, but all well-complemented by the fig jam and all tasty in their own right. I was particularly fond of the truffle cheese and the soft goat, which was extremely mild and melty.

For my main meal, I ordered the kale salad. It had a nice tang of citrus and the polenta croutons were unique and delicious, although I think Ghibellina of all places could step it up with the cheese on this. It tasted like Kraft parmesan from a can and it coated everything. Why?

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My husband ordered the squid ink spaghetti with soft shell crab. This was my one wish for him. I grew up in California where soft shell crab (and tiny East Coast crabs in general) are unheard of, and now eating an entire crab with the shell on feels both exotic and totally barbaric, and I secretly love it. The spaghetti itself had a nice chew to it and the crab was very flavorful and crispy. The whole dish was made 150% better with the addition of house-dried red pepper. Definitely demand that they bring you this.

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Ghibellina was offering a daily fish special of pan-seared branzino with quinoa and cherry tomatoes, and this was my father-in-law’s pick. The whole thing was delicious but definitely had the air of being too healthy for this place (and I ordered a damn salad!)

I was shocked to see that my mother-in-law ordered…drumroll please…a cheese pizza! Their crust is really soft and chewy, but also airy in a nice way. The cheese is definitely quality. Since she ordered it without the spicy pickled peppers on top, they brought them out on the side, and these made a boring cheese pizza vastly more interesting, although it still never would have been my pick with so many others (and optional toppings) on the menu. On the other hand, the giant scissors that Ghibellina gives you to cut your own slices and/or potentially murder someone are pretty great.

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All in all, we got a good meal and I’m glad we made the trip. The place is gorgeous, the service was impeccable, and the pasta and cheese were stand-outs.

Price: $50 per person.

Bottom line: Ghibellina is fun and has a wide variety of pizzas to please your favorite pizza eater.

Little Coco’s

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It’s not often that I’m in the mood for Italian, because, well, I can boil spaghetti myself at home, so when I want Italian, I want something totally different. Little Coco’s had that going for it from the beginning, exemplified by the fact that I had to google several ingredients while reading the menu.

The main drawback of this place is it’s in Petworth. I guess if you live in Petworth or CoHo, it’s not a big deal, but I felt like I was entering some alternate universe on my way here. All these rowhouses look just like my house, and yet I have no idea where I am…

Everyone at our table started with an alcoholic beverage, mostly beers and wines, but I ordered their house Manhattan. It came in a glass that was approximately the size of a thimble. It was bitter…but good…and despite its tiny size it was surprisingly potent. What did I even drink here? I walked away feeling slightly sloshed after just one of these things.

I was originally thinking I would split a pizza with my beloved husband, and wow did they have some original-looking pizzas. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try one of their really interesting pastas. It was a hard decision, but I finally settled on the squid ink pasta with crab.

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This is a horrible picture that doesn’t do justice to this dish. Under that ‘nduja crumb is was a veritable mountain of flavorful pasta in a light but still-rich seafood broth with chunks of crabmeat and the interesting touch of slivered ginger and sauteed jalapenos. Ordering this was not a mistake. The ginger and peppers added a unique kick that I feel is often lacking in Italian food, and the lobster sauce was just seafoody enough without being overly fishy and gross. P.S. yeah, ‘nduja was totally one of the things I googled at the table. It’s basically spicy sausage meat, you uncultured swine.

My husband and mother-in-law ordered the Mt. Vesuvius and Italian Stallion pizzas, respectively. They were…surprisingly similar. The main draw of the Mt. Vesuvius was the pepper honey that allegedly was one of the toppings. I think I tasted a small amount of this, and the sweetness added an interesting contrast to the spicy meats. There was definitely not enough of it, but it was still a solid pizza, although pepperoni and jalapeno is not anything new. The Italian Stallion was Meat and Onion City, and I mean that in the best way possible. There was no lack of meat here, and two kinds of onions made it pop in a way that a meat-lover’s pizza rarely does alone. This was the pizza winner, although I personally would have opted for either the Caulifornication or the ‘Nduja Really Want to Hurt Me had I had the opportunity. I may just try to recreate one or both of those pizzas at home. These pizzas are totally 2-person splittable.

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My father-in-law ordered the lasagna, which had a punny name I can no longer remember. It was definitely good, on the cheesier side, with that caramelized edge I love. It was surprisingly normal considering all the really unique dishes Little Coco’s has to offer. A good option for the person in your group who thinks ketchup is too spicy.

Price: $30 per person

Bottom line: You could do worse than Little Coco’s for sure. I recommend the pasta much more than the pizza, and I suggest that if you do come, you get something out of the ordinary because that’s what they do best. The prices are decent and the vibe is neighborhoody and friendly. So friendly, in fact, that our waitress asked us three times in the span of two minutes if everything was okay, and my father-in-law knew one of the other waitresses from her previous stint at EatBar. Yep, this is definitely a local place.

Maple

Maple is hidden among some other, more well-known 11th Street eateries: Red Rocks, The Coupe, Bad Saint, Meridian Pint, El Chucho, and Room 11 all populate this little stretch in Columbia Heights, and in general I’ve been more let down by these places than impressed, with the notable exception of El Chucho. I love me that elote loco.

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Maple is beautiful inside and out, decorated with exposed brick and innovative art. The ambiance is quiet and cozy, but not so awkwardly romantic that I felt weird being there with my in-laws. They have both a wine and cocktail of the day, although both the draft and bottled beer lists were pretty abysmal (Peroni? Really?!), but all four of us were able to find things that sounded good–the daily wine for my mother-in-law, a dry Anxo cider for my father-in-law, the amaro Manhattan for the hubs, and I ordered a mysterious cocktail, the contents of which I can no longer remember, possibly as a result of the aforementioned mystery cocktail. Drinks were served quickly and everyone was happy except me. Mine was citrusy, but entirely too bitter and herbal. The lesson here is don’t order cocktails if you haven’t heard of any of the ingredients. My mother-in-law loved the Saint Michel Incrocio Manzoni wine, which she enthusiastically called “the best wine she’s ever had.” In time, you, too, will learn to disregard this particular piece of praise.

For an appetizer, we ordered the burrata. It was creamy, melty, and served with cool, blistered cherry tomatoes. The negative is that there wasn’t more of this particular thing, but to be fair, it was a properly-sized appetizer, there’s just no amount of fresh mozzarella that could be too much.

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Now for the entrees…

Lamb ragu: fall-apart meat made this a standout. This was truly a lamb-lover’s dish. It was a solid amount of both the meat and the pasta. My husband took about a third of his enormous portion home “to be healthy.” He ate the leftovers as soon as we walked in our front door.

Pesto gnocchi: the gnocchi was quarter-sized and had the perfect texture of heavenly clouds. A certain someone may have called it “the best gnocchi I’ve ever had,” and I have to admit that the dumplings themselves were phenomenal. On the other hand, the pesto was meh and there was really nothing more to this dish. It was insulting to that gnocchi that it had to be served with such a bland sauce, but at least this error is easily reparable. A little salt and some spinach or green peas would brighten this up quite nicely.

Monkfish tagliatelle: Another great dish all around. Flavorful, well-cooked housemade pasta, broccoli, and carrots paired really well with the light fish. The fish was slightly overcooked and I could have used more of it, but it was perfectly sauced, the portion was not the insane mountain o’ pasta that I originally thought it was, and I appreciated the originality of it. This was totally worth the empty carbs.

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On to dessert: They had a decent whiskey list, especially considering the fact that it’s not a whiskey place. After-dinner drinks aside, we ordered the chocolate espresso flourless torte. Once again, it arrived insanely fast. If I could describe it in one word, it would be dense. But maybe that’s not a bad thing. The flavor was deep and rich, but where was the espresso I was promised in the title? If they just renamed this cake “Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate Chew Chew Chew,” it would be acceptable. It was quickly labeled “the best chocolate torte ever,” but in this case, that could possibly be an apt assertion.

Price: $30 per person.

Bottom line: Maple was great and I would definitely go back. They had great flavors, service so fast that the servers might be actual wizards, and it was cost-effective too. However, I will wait until they switch their menu for the next season because it was pretty small. Maybe Maple wasn’t a drop everything and go right now restaurant, but it does make good fodder for I’m in the mood for something new. Yes, definitely make your way over here as soon as you have a Saturday night with nothing else planned.