Table for One, at Rione XIII
Encouraged by a really superlative Icelandic dinner the other week at Ethan Stowell’s Staple & Fancy, I stopped into Stowell’s Capitol Hill outing, Rione XIII, named for Rome’s thirteenth district. I had been waiting for the rush to die down–the restaurant opened in late August, and it’s been sardined with a fancypants foodie set since. Spotting a largely open bar on my way past, I ducked in.
Dining solo is always a test of a restaurant’s innate hospitality. The guest doesn’t have sparkling conversation to distract or beautiful eyes to stare into, so there’s a lot more riding on a staff’s welcome. I took a seat at the bar, equidistant between two other single diners, and asked the barman for a “Negrino” instead of a Negroni.
Nothing says you’re unsure and could use a little help like mispronouncing things. But he didn’t take the cue (i.e., Was this my first time in?). The Negroni was just on the bland side (I like a heavy Campari pour), but arrived promptly.
I had forgotten it was Restaurant Week, so although I had meant to grab a beet salad ($12), I thought why not order a full, introductory dinner. (During Restaurant Week, you can get 3-course dinners for $28; the menus generally are designed to give you a “taste” of what a new-to-you restaurant is about.) My friend and colleague Ronald Holden tends to inveigh against Restaurant Week, saying the crush stresses wait staff and kitchens, and I have a bit more sympathy for that view, now.
The house antipasti ($10) is varied, a little heavy, and makes a good complement to your Negroni: you get two bites of grilled octopus, a heaping helping of prosciutto di Parma, a few Castelvetrano olives, tuna and chickpeas, and little boules of mozzarella. As the Roman street pizza also came with cured meat atop, though, the meal began to feel a little one-note (the crust was less crispy and more of a battle to slice through than I’ve come to expect from wood-fired pizzas). There are other entrée options on the RW menu: I had asked the barman if he’d recommend something other than the pizza, but he made a noncommittal noise.
The chocolate gelato had been allowed to refreeze, and was, rather than silky on the tongue, crunchy with ice crystals. Also, it came with the wrong kind of cookie. Just take my word on that.
During the meal, the diner to my right had left, and a couple pulled up stools next to me. When more room opened up, they moved, and someone else sat down, leaving an empty bar stool to my right and left. In the middle of my dessert course, the hostess came by and asked if I could move over, to allow a couple to sit. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I know it’s annoying.” It was, and what is a dinner guest to say, exactly? I am fine with moving until the appetizer arrives, but after that point, dinner is in progress. It’s rude to interrupt with requests. My meal was going to come to $60–how much would it cost to be able to sit in the same seat the whole time?
I’ve only ever spent a few hours in Rome, during Holy Week. It took forever to find a hotel, and it was near midnight when I made it across the threshold of a little trattoria near the train station. In fractured Italian, I asked if anything was still eating. The proprietor was clearly about to close up, but he gave me a second look, and said he’d check in the back. He emerged in a few moments with baked lasagna, and sat with me while I ate, talking about his son, who was studying in France near where I was living. This still ranks as one of the great meals of my life.
Maybe all Rione XIII needs is a few more Italians. Or, Italian lessons.