It debuted about two weeks before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic. No sooner had the Block opened its doors than they were closed again when the city went into lockdown. The food hall was never the same. Pokeworks didn’t reopen, and both Slurpin Ramen and Mama Mei’s, the sandwich concept, limped along for months before calling it quits amid a downtown landscape that was post-apocalyptic in its emptiness.
For basically a year, the Block had only two vendors operating inside its lonely, whitewashed walls: Pogiboy, the freewheeling Philippine-American fast-casual spot from Paolo Dungca and Tom Cunanan, which the chefs launched in January 2021, and Rose Ave Bakery, the sweets and sandwich counter from bakers Rosie Nguyen and Paula Wang, who made a name for themselves in the months after quarantine with a line of exceptional snacks that declare allegiance to Asia and America and points in between.
The Block was more food corner than food hall, as Mei wondered whether workers would ever return to their offices in full force. The owner’s predicament was pure Catch-22: a food hall that needed more vendors, who would probably never want to join a food hall with a diminished customer base.
If necessity is the mother of invention, then crisis is its drill sergeant. Mei and Dungca came up with a clever solution to expand the options inside the Block without asking outside vendors to assume the risks of an uncertain future: They partnered up to create the pasta-centric Piccoletto as well as Taqueria Don Ciro, a pair of sub-brands that are being executed by the team behind Pogiboy. It was a win-win: more consumer choice, little financial exposure.
The bonus is that the sub-brands offer a pair of cooks the opportunity to flex muscles that might otherwise get little use. Piccoletto is a chance for Dungca, 31, to make pasta, a passion he developed nearly a decade ago when he worked for the estimable Kevin Meehan, who was then developing menus for his underground supper clubs in Los Angeles. Taqueria Don Ciro, by contrast, is chance for Ciro Barrios, 42, a Mexican native who has a long working relationship with Dungca, to take his recipes and make them restaurant-ready.
The menus for both concepts are truncated affairs, and the one at Piccoletto grew even shorter over the summer as Dungca and his team tried to find an answer to the pandemic question that haunts every restaurant manager: How to do more with less? I mourn the loss of the pandan winter melon green tea, my go-to sip at Piccoletto before the drink was axed during the recent menu overhaul. But if its demise was the price to pay for the pasta shop’s survival, I can accept the death with something approaching grace.
Like Pogiboy, where Dungca and Cunanan create dishes that seamlessly synthesize their diverse influences, Piccoletto allows Dungca to inject elements of Japanese, Chinese and Philippine cooking into Italian pasta traditions, less to chase trends than to honor his own path as a chef. As such, you’ll find a chicken Parm in which the cutlet is breaded with panko and flour seasoned with, among other things, tamarind powder. The chicken katsu is then smothered in a spicy pork ragu and paired with a thick tangle of housemade tagliatelle. You may not finish this beast, but you’ll want to.
Dungca replaces the guanciale (let’s not litigate the guanciale verses pancetta argument, okay?) in traditional carbonara with tocino, the cured Philippine red pork that adds a sweet edge to the chef’s silky udon interpretation. But Dungca’s best fusion pasta is one he nicked from a New York City carryout that specializes in peanut butter noodles: His version starts with Jif, a spread that he thins out with mirin, rice wine vinegar, sesame oil and pasta water. The sauce almost glistens on the tagliatelle, delivering not just the expected nuttiness and sweetness but also the tickle of Korean chili flake on the back of your throat.
If you’re stressing over what to order at Piccoletto, I’d suggest you can safely skip the spicy pork tagliatelle, a pasta that doesn’t live up to its billing, as well as the pesto pappardelle, a bowl of soft, overcooked noodles that leaves your palate coated with oil. I’m still of two minds about the calamari fritti, a mess of fried squid sprinkled with five-spice powder and served with a shio koji nori ranch dipping sauce. After one bite, I find the seasoning too aggressive for the gentle seaside breeze of calamari; after a second and third bite, I find that I can’t stop popping these puppies.
With the surplus of terrific taquerias in the area, you’d think the last thing we need is another taco shop. You will be quickly disabused of this idea once you sink your teeth into Barrios’s oxtail barbacoa, a luxuriant mass of meat braised in beef stock infused with onion, chiles, bay leaf and other aromatics. The oxtail can, and should be, tucked into any one of the preparations at Don Ciro, whether taco, quesadilla or burrito.
Barrios has developed a spice blend that he mixes into ground pork for a housemade chorizo, a crumbly sausage vibrant enough to stand up to even the cheesiest quesadillas (and with four different cheeses in Don Ciro’s quesadillas, these are among the cheesiest of them all). The burritos here are not the Mission style that have dominated the marketplace, but the California style popular in So-Cal. These burrito logs are typically stuffed with fries, but Barrios and Dungca have opted for roasted skin-on potatoes, which add heft and kind of starchy creaminess to the bite. Pack that burrito with carne asada, and you’re good to go.
No matter what you order at the Block, you will ultimately face a temptation that borders on the biblical: As you wait on your food, mingling with other customers in the margins between tables, you must decide whether you will pass the time in line at Rose Ave Bakery. Maybe walk away with a pandan coconut doughnut, a passion fruit kouign-amann or a peach cardamom bun? Personally, I cave to temptation every time.
But that temptation will soon go away. Rose Ave will be moving to Woodley Park in the coming months, abandoning its counter inside the Block. The move may be good for my waistline, but it will mean one more empty space for Arturo Mei to fill inside his food hall.
Piccoletto and Taqueria Don Ciro
1110 Vermont Ave. NW, inside the Block food hall, 202-681-7516, theblockfoodhall.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday for both operations.
Nearest Metro: McPherson Square, with a short walk to the food hall.
Prices: $2 to $16.50 for all items at Taqueria Don Ciro; $2 to $12.50 for all items at Piccoletto.