If you don’t know how to read roman numerals, you’ll be pretty sad indeed when you go to Rione XII. That’s because you’ll tell your friends you had a great meal at “Rione ex eye eye eye” and they will mock you. But if that actually IS the case, and you really don’t know how to read roman numerals, then you’ve got bigger problems than Rione XII because you probably pronounce movie sequels wrong too and go around talking about how “Rocky vee” is the worst of the Rocky movies. Luckily for me, I learned a lot about roman numerals in school, since in my home state of Louisiana they still actually use them, along with leaded gas, phrenology, and those old-time exercise machines with the vibrating canvas belt that goes around your waist. So I felt right at home at Rione XIII.
We started with the zucchini street pizza ($15). The crust was thin and bubbly, simultaneously chewy and crackly, as good pizza crusts should be. Thin rounds of roasted zucchini dotted this pizzascape, along with cloudy globs of the softest and sweetest ricotta I have ever tasted. A generous dusting of microplaned cured tuna heart topped it all off. I was hesitant to order this pizza, but it was definitely tastier than it had any right to be: sweet and salty with just a briny hint courtesy of the tuna heart. If you were expecting a big bloody beating heart, you would be disappointed because the reddish brown flecks of heart looked more like grated nutmeg than anything else. This flavor combination, unlikely as it might sound, really worked. My biggest complaint about this pizza is that they unfortunately call this “street pizza” on the menu which is, as everyone knows, a synonym for roadkill.
Trippa alla romana ($12) was interesting, to say the least. Gigantic ass beans, each the size of a fetus, bathed in a rich amniotic fluid of tomato sauce with squares of tripe, bread crumbs, and a little mint. Like the street pizza, the tripe featured an unlikely combination of flavors and textures, but it was utterly bewitching. Still, to this day I have no idea why people eat tripe. It’s fucking stomach lining. Why would you want to put MORE stomach in your stomach? Plus it tastes vaguely dirty. Or maybe it’s not tripe’s fault. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I just want to gripe. Gripe about tripe.
Bucatini Amatriciana ($14) was the best thing I ate at Rione XIII. Big slippery pasta tubes, which your mom likes even more than MY big slippery pasta tube, writhed joyfully in a bright tomato sauce. Also in the sauce were little porky batons of guanciale and sautéed arcs of red onion. The plate was dusted on top with grana. This was generally good but I take issue with the red onion. There’s no reason to put red onion in anything: raw, it’s too strong. Cooked, looks like worms. You can’t win. The only reason people use red onions instead of yellow is because they’re red supremacists. Go to hell, you fucking onion racists.
Gnocchi alla romana ($14) was okay but very cheesy. Too cheesy. Cheesier, even, than Kenny G’s newest album, “Kenny G Performs a Thomas Kinkade Christmas.” Big soft round areolas of polenta were topped with melted mozzarella and tomato sauce. These were quite tasty: the rich satiny pucks of polenta sported a charmingly bruleed skin of mozzarella on top, but in general it really just tasted like pizza.
Oxtails alla Vaccinara was, for $19, a relative bargain. For this price you got a couple silky chunks of braised beef that dropped effortlessly off the bone. Unfortunately there was a lot of bone: too much bone, in fact, even for your mom, whose appetite for bone is legendary. And these weren’t regular, unassuming bones, they were big fucking dinosaur vertebra. It looked like HR Giger plated this fucking thing. Beneath the macabre beef cadaver was a big slick pile of polenta, with tomato sauce on top. This tasted a lot like the gnocchi, which tasted a lot like the bucatini, which tasted a lot like the tripe, which is to say: it all tasted red. You can blame me for choosing the wrong menu items, but the waitress could’ve mentioned to us that all the shit we were ordering had identical flavor profiles.
Dessert was a chcolate amaretto cake ($8), with a quenelle of straciatella gelato on the side. It’s a pretty moist cake, and the gelato was creamy enough. You really can’t go wrong with cake and ice cream, but isn’t there a more “authentic” Italian dessert with tomato sauce and polenta in it? Actually there must not be, because if there was we would’ve probably ended up with it.
Rione XIII isn’t bad, but I’d hardly call it mind-blowing, though maybe that’s not the point. I definitely give them credit for some very creative flavor profiles, and a competent (though no-frills) preparation, but something about the place just doesn’t do it for me. I think I might just be suffering from Ethan Stowell Fatigue: the indefatigable restaurateur seems to be opening new establishments at a pace that rivals the proliferation of facebook posts that complain about the president. In fact, by 2025 there will be one Ethan Stowell restaurant for every hummingbird on earth. So watch the fuck out.
I could also be suffering from Italian food fatigue, which as we all know is notoriously technique-free, mostly because Italians would prefer to spend time honing the ability to grab a woman’s ass while piloting a speeding Vespa instead of making elaborate terrines and delicate sauces. The French like to fuck too, mind you, yet they somehow ALSO find the time to create the world’s finest cuisine AND complain about American hegemony AND they manage to do all of this in a 35 hour work-week. Still, if you like Italian food and you are on Capitol Hill and Spinasse is booked, which I assure you it will be, then why not give Rione XIII a shot?
Rating: 6.5 street pizzas out of 10
Rione XIII is located at 401 15th Ave E.
For reservations call 206-838-2878