The Washington Post

At Osteria 177, the Many Culinary Styles of Italy

Nancy Lewis

Italy is a country where every wrinkle in topography brings a change in culinary preparations. Cooks separated by a single mountain or those at opposing ends of the same valley have distinctly different ways of preparing what, to outsiders, may seem like the same dish.

Few of these regional dishes are known to the American dining public. What we consider classic Italian preparations are really just well-known versions of local specialties: spaghetti with clams, spaghetti with meatballs, veal cutlet Milanese, steak Florentine. You wouldn’t find spaghetti with clams in a home-style restaurant in the Piedmont region around Turin, and you won’t find spaghetti with meatballs in a Venetian kitchen.

Arturo Ottaviano grew up in Verona (the city of Romeo and Juliet) in the Veneto region centered on Venice; Maurizio Cotti grew up in Brescia, just a few miles away along the autostrada that traverses Northern Italy, but his culinary heritage is that of the Lombardy region, whose capital is Milan. Together the two men want to introduce Italy’s vastly differing culinary styles at their new Annapolis restaurant Osteria 177.

The name, which takes its numbers from the street address, isn’t just a pretension. In Italy, osterias are the neighborhood gathering places, where cards and conversation are usually accompanied by glasses of local wines. Osteria 177 aspires to be such a place for Annapolis, smack in the middle of Chesapeake yacht heaven, in a building that for years housed a Chinese restaurant.

Ottaviano, the manager, and Cotti, the chef, have a long history of working in area restaurants, including Washington’s Tiberio, Annapolis’s Mona Lisa, and together at Trattoria Alberto in Glen Burnie, which has long had the reputation as Baltimore’s best Italian restaurant, its Anne Arundel County location notwithstanding.

All of that experience comes together in Osteria 177, a space that is both traditional (chandeliers dripping with crystals) and contemporary (stark, angular white leather chairs). Deep mahogany paneling, interrupted by flashes of deep red, lines the side walls of the restaurant, which are outfitted with a series of booths. Across the front, broad windows overlook Main Street. A bar, flanked by two marble niches, anchors the back of the room and functions as a service bar for waiters.

Striking modern paintings decorate the walls; rustic pottery accents each of the booths. What you won’t find here are the Murano glass pendant lights that are a staple of nearly every restaurant these days. You won’t find them in many restaurants in Italy, either.

The noise level is high, but that doesn’t mean you can’t carry on a conversation with your table mates. And there is an unusual festivity in the air. Everyone here seems to be having fun.

The first hint of Ottaviano and Cotti’s culinary strategy is evident with the arrival of the menu. The offerings may seem familiar, but just a little different.

Arugula salad, a staple on countless menus these days, includes bright red pomegranate seeds along with crumbled bits of Gorgonzola cheese and pine nuts — a classic combination of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region north of Venice.

A soup, listed on the menu as sausage, fennel and beans, is a classic rendering of pasta e fagioli, a Venetian specialty (though you’ll likely encounter a meatless version for Lent).

“We didn’t want to have just Northern Italian cooking,” Ottaviano said. “We are focusing on coastal cooking” — which, considering Italy’s peninsular shape, encompasses much of the country.