I recently chaired an Association of Food Journalists committee tasked with rewriting the group’s ethics code and critics guidelines, which meant we had to wrestle with the always knotty question of how long a critic should wait before visiting a new restaurant. One month? Two?
But when a restaurant gets off to a slow start, a critic who shows up four months into service can still feel like she’s rushing things, as I discovered last week when I lunched at The Basement Kitchen, the sit-down offshoot of Mascio’s Italian Specialty Foods. After a staffer cleared away a stack of materials assembled for a labeling project, I took a seat at the tiny market’s only table. Moments later, owner Marci Mascio peeked out of the kitchen, clapping her hands together: “Our first dine-in customer!,” she trilled.
The Basement Kitchen isn’t exactly withering away: Although it’s sited on a Georgetown street that’s pretty much impervious to walk-by traffic, neighborhood workers are hip to the counter’s menu of take-out pastas, polentas, sandwiches and arancini, the Sicilian fried rice balls which are the restaurant’s raison d’etre (or, if you prefer, ragione di vita.)
Mascio, whose forebears were among the first to make fresh pasta in Seattle, four years ago started manufacturing frozen arancini. (Her brother, Jerry, produces pre-cooked polenta in Kent.) While arancini fillings typically range from tomato sauce to cheese, Mascio has concocted varieties including jalapeno cheddar, dill pickle, pineapple coconut and gluten-free brown rice with zucchini and onions. A dozen or so balls cost $4 at The Basement Kitchen; unfortunately, there’s no provision for mixing styles.
The frozen arancini will soon be sold at Whole Foods, but much of Mascio’s business now comes from a Canadian grocery chain, which promotes the snack as a quick hors d’oeurve. The arancini are sized for entertaining: Local eaters accustomed to the hulking golden rice balls served at restaurants such as Rione XIII, Agrodolce or Bar Del Corso may be taken aback by the gumball proportions of Mascio’s arancini.
Since the arancini are so small, it’s hard to taste past the fry. But the housemade red sauce served with the arancini had a terrifically nonchalant zest that made me wonder about the lasagna. The counter clerk assured me it was marvelous, but she balked at serving it, since the available pan didn’t meet her freshness standards.
I made do with a highly decent sausage-and-peppers sandwich, featuring a single plank of salty, microwaved sausage. Still, I hope The Basement Kitchen is soon drawing enough customers to keep its lasagna from aging, since a great neighborhood Italian lunch joint never gets old.