Does Sergio Ristorante Italiano Deserve Your Yelp? Sampling the online community’s unlikely choice for Washington’s top Italian restaurant

Giving It the Boot: Sergio is Italian in name only.
Darrow Montgomery

The names of the Washington’s best Italian restaurants roll off your tongue like extra-virgin olive oil: Tosca, Obelisk, Siroc, 2Amys, Sergio. OK, maybe you, like me, choked a little on that last name, which has been promoted to the uppermost levels of Italian gastronomy in the area by the users of Yelp.com, “the fun and easy way to find, review and talk about what’s great—and not so great, in your area.”

Check out some of these comments about the humble Silver Spring establishment on the site:

• As a Silver Spring local, i feel like this place should be among the top places to eat in the DC area. Its true, the atmosphere is a bit lacking but the food really does make up for it. It is amazingly delicious and delectable and year after year, it does not disappoint. I look forward to visiting this great restaurant. Maybe because it is so hidden away, its still a true gem.

• Sergios is so good I hesitate to review it on Yelp....The crowd is a good mixture of longterm devoted local fans and random walk ins from the hotel. They never advertise and they never seem to make anyone’s “Best Of” list. I think it’s because the regulars don’t brag about it for fear of it being overrun.

• While this place can only be described as traditional Italian food, it’s too basic of a phrase to actually describe the flavors and meal itself.

• It’s a great, small family-owned business. The owner is from Italy, goes back every year, and brings back new inspiration! The menu changes constantly and the chef is great with improvising if there is something in particular you like....It’s probably the best italian food I’ve had in that area.. and better than many of the overpriced italian restaurants in dc.

There’s not a single negative Yelp review of Sergio. The restaurant inside the Hilton on Colesville Road averages 4.5 stars based on 14 critiques. To the typical Washington-area Web surfer looking for a good Italian restaurant, Sergio would land at the top of the list. Its rating is better than those for Tosca, Siroc, Bibiana, 2Amys, and many other favorites of the culinary elite. It shares the same rating as Obelisk, Peter Pastan’s Dupont Circle operation that pampers you with precise, pristinely sourced bites of rustic Italian antipasti before moving you into the main section of the meal.

One recent Friday night, I invited a well-known Italian chef, with more than 20 years experience in the kitchen, to join me at Sergio Ristorante Italiano to assess the restaurant’s authenticity—or at least its food’s resemblance to regional Italian cooking. I granted the chef anonymity in return for his honest opinions. I’ll call him Claudio for the sake of this story.

Not long after we were ushered to our seats in the subterranean eatery, Claudio declared his dissatisfaction: Its name notwithstanding, Sergio doesn’t feel Italian, he said. Claudio started talking about the smells and the music and the general aura of small family-owned restaurants back in Italy; Sergio is aiming for that kind of easy, carefree vibe, but it falls short with its dated, nondescript decor and cheerless staff. Claudio said he didn’t see anyone smile during our visit.

Things didn’t get much better when we started reviewing the plastic-covered menus. They were written in both Italian and English or, as Claudio noted, the dishes were Italian “by name but not by execution.”

We started with the mozzarella in corrozza, which Claudio told me is a street food readily available in Naples and Apulia. A round of fresh mozzarella is typically concealed between slices of a good, hearty Italian loaf. The concoction is then dipped in milk and eggs and fried. An anchovy fillet, or half of one, is usually sandwiched inside the bite. It should be crunchy, airy, buttery, and pungent all at once. The version at Sergio was as soft as a grilled cheese sandwich on Wonder bread, and it tasted mostly of fryer oil, although we both liked the accompanying creamy anchovy sauce for dipping.

For our mains, we were thwarted on our first requests. Sergio had exhausted most of its house-made pastas, including the fettuccine and tonnarelli. We settled for Sergio’s ragù served on penne (instead of the advertised fettuccine), as well as its manicotti ai spinaci, in which house-made manicotti is stuffed with spinach and ricotta.

The manicotti was so overcooked that it had the texture of cream cheese. Even more troubling to Claudio, the pasta was topped with a thin layer of provolone cheese, which has all the authenticity of Olive Garden. The penne was likewise overcooked, although it was properly salted and flavorful; the ragù itself was sparsely applied and watery, as if the cooks hadn’t drained the pasta completely. For Claudio, the dish’s main fault was its inability to tie its flavors together into a coherent whole.

As we sat there picking at our plates, we started talking about Sergio’s reputation among diners and why they’re so passionate about the place. Claudio thought Sergio’s modest prices factored into diners’ assessments. He also noted how most of the people who commented on Sergio are local to Silver Spring and perhaps longtime fans. The implication was that they’re naturally biased.

As we finally headed to our cars, I had to ask Claudio one final question: Was there anything authentic about our meals? He turned to me and said, “There was nothing Italian about our meals.”

 

Whoop, There It Is

 

If you believe the New York Times the treat most likely to supplant the cupcake in our hearts and mouths is the whoopie pie. That’s right, the whoopie pie, that hamburger-shaped cake split in half and traditionally filled with a hydrogenated spread of Crisco and Marshmallow Fluff.

Maybe that doesn’t sound so appetizing to those outside of New England. But I tell you what, after eating the whoopie pie at Something Sweet, Bo Blair’s decadent little shop across from 2Amys on Macomb Street NW, I’m ready to swear allegiance to that oversized Down East dessert sandwich. Or is it more Pennsylvania Dutch, given that the Amish could be ultimately responsible for unleashing this sugary indulgence into the world?

Regardless, Blair’s wife, baker Meghan Blair, reaches high and low for her interpretation of the whoopie pie. The cake batter is prepared with dark cocoa powder, while the filling falls back on tradition, incorporating a little Fluff into the recipe. The finished product is a big, happy mouthful of moist chocolate cake, pleasingly firm to the bite, balanced with sweet filling that has the telltale, almost rubbery, texture of marshmallows.

At $4 a pie, this whoopie is more expensive than your average cupcake, but as the clerk told me, she can make her pies last three days.

She has a lot more will power than I do.

Sergio Ristorante Italiano, 8727 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, (301) 585-1040.

Something Sweet, 3708 Macomb St. NW, (202) 364-2999.

twitter.com/timcarman

Our Readers Say

Ok, this is a pretty crushing review, so I just have to throw in my two cents on Sergios. I started to go to Sergio's when I was living in Silver Spring, but I wouldn't consider myself a regular or an old-timer. After trying a few places in Silver Spring for Italian (Olazzo, DaMarco, Vicino), Sergio's became our go-to favorite. I come from an Italian family, and whenever my parents come to visit, my dad always wants to go to Sergios for dinner. While I don't claim to an expert on Italian food, I will say that me and my Italian family really enjoy the food there. I will also say that I've never had any of the plates you sampled at Sergio's, so maybe you had bad luck with what you ordered (or maybe I've had good luck all these times).

As for the service, every time I go there, I see Mr. Sergio strolling around the dining room, greeting regulars with hugs and stopping by random tables to check on how they like their meal. I've had similarly warm service from the other waiters there. Everyone's certainly entitled to their opinion, but my numerous experiences eating at Sergio's couldn't be more different from your review. I certainly get your point: People should take anonymous online reviews with a grain of salt and leave the 'real' food reporting to the experts, but this just seems like an especially mean-spirited review based on only a single visit.
Here's why Sergio's is at the top of Yelp! and also why someone mysteriously all of a sudden submitted a rebuttal to this article.

The people at Sergio's are the ones posting the reviews! H-E-L-L-O There was a big article in the Post about companies gaming Yelp! reviews to get a strong web presence. Why else would people be so passionate about a place that sucks so bad? C mon now people
Oooooh...someone 'mysteriously' posted a response to an online article trashing a restaurant that people like to go to. It must be a conspiracy by the restaurant owners!
I've never eaten at Sergio's; I do however live in Silver Spring and am always interested in reading about restaurants that I've never visited. This critique raised two questions in my mind:

1. Does "Claudio" work at another Italian restaurant in the area? If so, how do we know that he isn't jealous of Sergio's and/or trying to harm a competitor?

2. Does the City Paper always take well-known chefs along for its reviews? If not, why was Sergio's held to a different standard?
I am Italian, I just move to North America 3 years ago, so you can say I still am VERY Italian.
I have never been to Sergio's, so I do not know about the food, but the part in which Claudio criticizes the interior of the restaurant for not having that italian feeling sounds suspiciously like a stereotype to me. Guess what, not all Italian restaurants look the same in Italy, nor they play the same music or have the same decorations. Not every restaurant owner walks in the room to hug clients, and "Volare" is by now rarely heard. When it happens, Italians tend to avoid the place, thinking it's just a tourist trap.
Tim Carman's review of Sergio Ristorante amounts to a drive-by shooting. He indicates he visited the restaurant only once, whereas professional reviewers generally refrain from writing about a place until they have eaten there several times. Carman's guest "declared his dissatisfaction" even before the menus came. While providing no evidence that he spoke with Sergio, Carman presents himself as privy to Sergio's inner thoughts: "Sergio is aiming for that kind of easy, carefree vibe." Carman misspells "mozzarella in carrozza," which seems a cavalier lapse indeed, considering that his review heaps derision on Sergio's as inauthentic. A reader can hardly be blamed for concluding that the reviewer had decided before entering the restaurant what he was going to find there and so paid little attention to his subject, thereby falling well below the most basic reportorial standards.

In the interest of full disclosure, while I have not written a review of Sergio's for Yelp, I am "local to Silver Spring." But I'm not sure what that means, as I've also been "local to" Paris, New York, and Rome, having resided in all three cities (and eaten in some of their best restaurants). Have I become a regular at Sergio's because I'm "naturally biased," or because I think it's such a good place to eat that I want to go back? The one who is biased here, and conspicuously so, is Carman. To make up one's mind before the facts even begin to come in is unworthy of anyone who claims to be a journalist.
I feel that I must respond to your recent published review of Sergio’s Ristorante in Silver Spring. Tim Carman, your restaurant critic, dined at Sergio’s once with a supposedly renowned chef, had two pasta dishes, and didn’t like it. He and “Claudio” determined that the restaurant was aiming to imitate small family owned restaurants in Italy. My wife and I have eaten at Sergio’s many times in the recent past and have always enjoyed the food, wine, and the friendly atmosphere. In particular, we enjoy the fish and veal dishes with pasta. The food compares favorably with Italian restaurants in Europe and certainly is “Italian.”

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