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The Hill's Newest Restaurant
March 1, 2013

The Hill's
Newest Restaurant

Shelly's Back Room is one DC landmark where you can really blow smoke! Try it for lunch or dinner, with a good drink and cigars. Purified air for smokers and non-smokers alike. Check out Washington's civilized cigar tavern here.  

Capitol Hill's infamous Park Cafe has at last been replaced, to the relief of a neighborhood long frustrated by the restaurant's inability to live up to its prime location's potential. But can they expect better of its successor? To find out, we stopped by Ninnella, which softly opened Tuesday.

Brothers Angelo and Alessandro Forte (flanked above by Chef Emanuele Simeoni and GM Matthew Campanella) come from a family of cooks in Naples, Italy. Their grandmother Anna—affectionately known as "Ninnella," or "little lady"—was a wizard in the kitchen, both at home and in her Naples restaurant, also called "Ninnella." After 30 years of successful operation, the original Ninnella was closed when Ana passed; her grandsons have opened Ninnella in Capitol Hill as a tribute to the family legend.

The brothers tell us that though they still live in Naples, they have always dreamed of opening a restaurant in America. They searched all over the country for the perfect location and fell in love not only with the Park Cafe space, but also the Capitol Hill neighborhood. They ate their way through Manhattan in search of the ideal chef and found Chef Simeoni, who comes to DC after 15 years of cooking in Manhattan and running his own Upper East Side restaurant, Barbaluc.

Basil Panna Cotta
Ninnella's menu will represent cuisine from all over Italy, with a focus on pasta and seafood in Chef Simeoni's self-dubbed sophisticated Italian-style of cooking. They opened Tuesday with a one-page dinner menu, but plan to greatly expand their offerings soon. Once dinner service is running smoothly, they will offer brunch on Saturdays and Sundays, eventually expanding to weekday breakfast and lunch as well.

Quality wine and espresso are a must at any authentic Italian place. Ninnella will have a lengthy reserve wine list for special occasions, and a second, more moderately priced everyday wine list as well. Lavazza espresso shots are pulled from a shiny, state-of-the-art machine perched on the bar. The street-level dining room seats 30 and features a small gas fireplace for added coziness. When the basement level opens, it will seat another 15. There will also be patio seating out front come spring—a necessity, given the area's high population of dogs and strollers. The new owners want the neighbors to know: things are going to be very different.

Expansion &pizza

H street's wildly popular H &pizza has just announced the location of its second shop, which they hope to open late spring. The fast-casual gourmet pizza shop will be taking over the former Quiznos space above the metro at 13th and U St NW. This prime location has significantly higher foot traffic and a rich history that owners Steve Salis and Mike Lastoria plan to pay homage to by featuring local and historical art, just like their H Street shop. Steve tells us they've learned a lot from running their original shop and that the new space will be better suited to higher speed and efficiency.

While the new space is actually 300 square feet smaller than the original, its wide, rectangular layout (as opposed to H's long, narrow layout) will allow for a service line that is twice as long as H Street's. This means room for more people assembling pizzas, which means speedier service. They also plan to have a separate line to accommodate large orders, which currently jam up the line at H Street. A good thing, as the lines in the population-dense U Street neighborhood are bound to be much longer.

Is DC Pricing Out Smaller Competitors?


We stopped by the Jimmy John's booth at ICSC last week to learn about its expansion plans for DC. Real Estate director Chris Newman tells us that they are working on eight deals in DC, mostly focused on the central office district area. But they've been facing difficulty locating viable sites because of skyrocketing rental rates here. This market is so hot right now that some businesses are willing to operate at a loss and/or knowingly overpay in order to secure prime locations—tough tactics for smaller players to contend with.

We also spoke with Streetsense's James McCandless to get the broker perspective on whether smaller and local players are getting priced out of DC. He tells us that local shops actually have an edge in the DC market, partly because their superior knowledge of local spaces gives them an advantage. Also, the transient nature of the DC population means customers are more willing to try unique local brands like Sweetgreen or Taylor than folks in other markets. And finally, James tells us that DC is fortunate to have sophisticated landlords that understand that a better mix of businesses is better for everyone, so they don't just go with national brands that sound familiar.

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