Selecting a restaurant’s name could be a challenge. But for Lydia and Louis Patierno, the setting inspired their choice: Girasole, Italian for "sunflower.” This cheerful restaurant in The Plains measures up to its name: bright and sunny, thanks to the expansive windows that wrap around the dining room, lush with outdoor foliage in warm weather and colorful with huge vases of vibrant flowers indoors – including, of course, sunflowers. The restaurant's name, said Mr. Patierno, also connotes both “country” and Tuscany, where sunflowers grow abundantly.
Opening up Girasole nine years ago while still operating their now-sold Manassas restaurant, Panino, the Patiernos consider their finding this location a stroke of divine luck. “I used to come out between lunch and dinner from Manassas for trout fishing,” said Mr. Patierno. “I would drive around and see this corner building, and I would think that this is where I would like to be. If I were out here, I wouldn’t need to drive around looking for a place to fish.”
When the former owner put Panino up for sale, the couple decided to make the move and to open a country place that features exquisite, from-scratch and traditional Italian cooking – that means breads, pastas, sauces, cured meats and pastries made on the premises by Mr. Patierno, the head chef. It helps, of course, that both grew up in Italian families, where honest home cooking prevailed – although Mrs. Patierno’s mother was Polish. “My uncle had an Italian provision import business,” she said. “I had a chance to work for him, and that sparked my interest in food.”
As for Mr. Patierno, as a college student he spent time in Ravena, in the Emilia-Romagna area of Italy. “That is a very culinary region,” he said. “So, without realizing it, I was absorbing a lot of food knowledge.”
It also helps that both Patiernos are dedicated foodies, having degrees from the Culinary Institute of America and having held assorted chef and management jobs in numerous restaurants, including one very prestigious D.C. restaurant. “I worked at the late Tiberio restaurant in Washington,” Mr. Patierno said about this very high-end destination. “I worked with a lot of great people, mostly Europeans who learned kitchen skills from the bottom up.”
His wife, on the other hand, interned for famed chef Hubert Schmeider aftr cooking school, then worked in kitchens in Iowa and Indianapolis before returning to D.C. In those days, she discovered, few women were hired to cook in the District, so she worked in hotel management, invaluable training for knowing how to run the couple’s future restaurants.
Now that they focus solely on Girasole, the Patiernos can concentrate fulltime on structuring a menu that includes such Italian entrée specialties as fritto misto (crisply fried squid, scallops, sole, shrimp, mussels and zucchini) and scaloppini di vitello saltimbocca (veal scaloppini with sautéed onions, roasted red peppers and light tomato sauce). Appetizers include mozzarella fritti (fried mozzarella with a light lemon anchovy sauce). And don’t bypass the pasta. Who could resist pappardella alla Bolognese (wide pasta ribbons with a classic meat sauce)? Delicate pastries and cups of espresso wind up the meal.
Girasole, 4244 Loudoun Ave., The Plains, VA. 540-253-5501. Hours: Dinner, Monday-Saturday, 5:30 p.m. - 10 p.m.,
Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m. Brunch, Sunday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Aperitivo hour: Sunday-Friday, 4:30-6:30 p.m. For more information, visit girasoleva.com
Girasole Penne all'amatriciana
(Penne pasta with cured pork)
Serves 4 to 6
5 ounces guanciale
1 garlic clove
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
Fine sea salt to taste
3 grinds black pepper
1 1/2 pounds tomatoes
1 pound penne
3/4 cup parmigiano reggiano
Cut the guanciale into slices. Peal and gently smash the garlic. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat and sauté the guanciale and garlic. Add the onion, crushed red pepper, salt and black pepper, stirring occasionally. Add the tomatoes and reduce the temperature to low; cook for eight to 12 minutes.
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, add the penne and cook until al dente. Drain the pasta and add it to the skillet with the sauce. Stir and combine the pasta and sauce. Sprinkle the cheese over top and stir. Serve hot.
Note: Guanciale is an Italian cured pork product, cut either from the jowl or the cheek. It is traditionally used in pasta dishes.