Expectations. They’re everywhere this time of year. Expectations for the perfect Christmas. The perfect gift. The perfect New Years celebration. It’s not something I really subscribe to, especially since I’m kind of a scrooge about the holidays. But there is one area in my life where I often fall prey to high expectations and that is dining out. All Purpose is one of DC’s restaurant darlings from 2016. I’ve heard nary a negative word about the casual pizzeria by the people behind the Red Hen and Boundary Stone. So of course, by the time we finally made it in for dinner earlier this month our expectations were sky-high.
The dining room was packed on a Saturday night. We’d secured reservations a month prior, a good thing considering a coworker of mine later told me he’d waited over two hours the same night trying to get a table before giving up. Despite the frenzy going on around us, service was prompt and extremely efficient from start to finish. Our server gave us a roundup of her favorite dishes and assisted us in picking an affordable and versatile bottle of red to pair with our food. We were off to a good start.
Considering the difficulty one can have securing a table at All Purpose, we decided to go all out and order enough food to stretch into two meals. This is something we do often, mostly because eating delicious leftovers in your pajamas while watching TV is one of life’s greatest pleasures.
For me, many of the most tempting dishes were found under the antipasti selection. We hadn’t intended on ordering the calamari frito with lemon, dill and a Calabrian chili aioli – but after seeing repeat orders coming out of the kitchen our craving got the better of us.
The perfectly fresh and tender calamari turned out to be one of our favorite dishes of the night. We almost preferred the pieces without the heavy aioli, focusing instead on the simple citrus and dill flavors and the perfect breading.
Our next dish wasn’t such a hit. As far as expectations go, I think they were set the highest for Don’s meatball surprise with tomato, mozarella and whipped ricotta.
We dug into the meatballs in eager anticipation of the cheesy “surprise” in the middle. Unfortunately, the dish was cold and the surprise failed to delight. We probably should have sent it back, but for whatever reason we kept checking each meatball hoping to find a warmer, tastier version. After reading so many positive things about the dish, we couldn’t help but feel like maybe we were somehow doing it wrong. Alas, I think we just happened to stumble upon one of the few off moments from a kitchen that generally churns out top-notch food. It happens. The whipped ricotta was delightful, however, although I found myself wishing for a nice slice of bread to dip it in.
Fortunately, our next dish satisfied that desire. The straciatella bruschetta with roasted butternut squash, hazelnuts, sweet red grapes and fried sage was another standout of the night.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I really like sweet dishes during a meal (another example of this being Kyirisan’s scallop and coconut risotto). I am not a huge dessert person, so a sweet note in the midst of an otherwise savory dinner is a great contrast for me. The straciatella was rich and creamy and the sweet red grapes, roasted squash and hazelnuts almost reminded me of a fruit crumble. Tom, who is not typically a fan of fruit, raved about it as well.
Our food came out at a very reasonable pace, allowing time to fully enjoy a few bites of each plate before moving on to the next. We tried to only sample a little bit of everything to make sure we could get to the end. I was grateful for that strategy when this bubbling hot Jersey-style eggplant parm hit the table.
I’m not always the biggest fan of eggplant, but this wasn’t bitter or tough at all and melted in your mouth. Tom is half Italian and grew up in Jersey, so the fact that he gave it a thumb’s up says a lot. It’s exactly the kind of cheesy, decadent creation you’d expect from a family style Italian restaurant in New Jersey.
We thought we’d save the best for last. You can’t go to a pizzeria and not order a pie. We went with the much-lauded Duke #7 with tomato, ‘nduja, mozzarella, scamorza, sweet red peppers, giardiniera and oregano.
Maybe we were just full, but this too missed the mark. It seemed that the dishes we felt we “must order” were the ones that didn’t come close to living up to expectations. I did very much enjoy the contrast of flavors on top of the pizza, but the crust was far too dry for my taste. I felt like a dog gnawing a bone trying to eat it. We took most of it home, and it did fair slightly better when reheated. But I don’t think that’s the point.
We couldn’t pass up a dessert from Buttercream Bakeshop next door, the supplier of all sweets at All Purpose, so we took a slice of rainbow cookie cake to go.
We didn’t actually end up eating it until two days later, but it held up surprisingly well (photo taken right before it was consumed) and was quite delicious.
Due to the hype All Purpose has received, I expected something a little more show-stopping. But expectations aside, this was a very good meal with only a few true missteps. What I like about All Purpose, and I think what has made it so popular, is that it’s not trying to be the coolest or most creative restaurant in DC. It’s a casual neighborhood pizzeria offering excellent service in a lively atmosphere, serving classic Italian-American dishes with a few surprises. I will definitely be back to give it another shot, with my expectations in check.