Recently, Ethan Stowell Restaurants (ESR) announced that they'd be selling both Anchovies & Olives and its tiny, charcuterie-and-pizza-focused sibling, Bar Cotto. Though Stowell is open to a loyalist keeping the concepts the same, he told Eater he'd prefer that someone take over the space and do their own thing. Put bluntly, that fucking sucks, because the things he's done there are marvelous things.
The Bar Cotto happy hour is a shining example of those things, as a legitimate case can be made for it being the city's best happy hour. For starters, wine is $5 a glass, and those glasses are every bit as full as they would be were it not happy hour. Their happy hour selections are invariably food-friendly as all fuck, and occasionally standouts in their own right. The happy hour cocktail menu also invariably features the Twilight in Parma ($8), a beautifully bracing combination of gin, lime, rosemary, and lambrusco. When it comes to happy hour, I almost always order cheap wine, but that damn drink gets me every time. It's the perfect thing to remind you that the hamster wheel of work has stopped spinning, at least for the evening.
Their snacky starter things are similarly irresistible. No Bar Cotto happy hour is complete without at least one order of torta fritta ($5), little pillows of fried dough that are great on their own and superlative when stuffed with a bit of the charcuterie board's ($12) mortadella. The starters are all pretty simple—charred broccoli with anchovy and chili ($7), a couple delicious little crostinis ($2/ea.), Castelvetrano olives ($5), a couple salads ($5), and the daily charcuterie board—but always perfectly executed or carefully curated.
However, as wonderful as all the snacks are, the thing I'll miss most is the pizza. I cannot gloss over the fact that selling a gorgeous, full-sized wood-fired pizza for $9-10 might have something to do with the reason that Stowell isn't making money at Bar Cotto, but that won't stop me from rejoicing in the fact that he's been doing it for so long.
And while his CFO may have finally drawn a line in the sand, it sounds like this insane generosity will continue, at least for a bit. Bar manager Otra informed me, on a recent visit, that while the two concepts could be sold at any moment, it would probably be at least a few months before they call it quits. Perhaps as many as six, he speculated.
This brings me to their new anchovy pizza, which you absolutely must go eat while you can. For $10, I defy you to find a better one. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, were they real, would lose their shit for this thing. Unlike the cheap, cheesy version in the cardboard box that Leo, Raph, Don, and Michelangelo scarfed with so much vigor, Stowell's anchovy pizza is a marvel of balance and integration.
According to Otra, it's a riff on one of A & O's best pasta dishes, the bigoli. Bigoli is essentially a very thick spaghetti noodle, and its pasta water, anchovy, garlic, and mint sauce is amazing. Coated in coarse breadcrumbs, it is the height of fishy, textural perfection. The pizza version does not have breadcrumbs, but it does have that delightfully savory anchovy sauce, and that sauce is spread over the dough, which means that you get an even amount of anchovy in every bite. Normally, anchovy pizza is a just a cheese pizza with the occasional overwhelming burst of brine. This is the perfect amount in every bite, and the mint, oregano, and pickled pepper that dot the pizza's mozzarella expanse add just the right amount of complexity to the whole affair.
I also enjoy it because it's a potent reminder of something I am ashamed to admit I've forgotten: Ethan Stowell is a really good chef and has done a lot to push this city's culinary scene forward. Given that there are about 70,000 fancy restaurants to focus on in this city, many of them new and flashy, it's easy to filter out anything that comes from a longstanding group like ESR. Given how much of a publicity advantage the well-funded fine dining establishments and corporate restaurant groups enjoy, I also purposefully try to skew my coverage towards scrappier, independent establishments. Stowell doesn't need any more coverage, certainly, but I'd be lying if I said he doesn't deserve it sometimes.
Indeed, it's true that he's one relatively wealthy white dude who owns probably 20 percent of the city's dining scene, but I think he's doing good things with that empire. For one, he makes consistently delicious food, and he makes it relatively accessible to the masses. Like, $10-pizza-on-Capitol-Hill accessible, which blows my mind every time I type it. For two, he employs a metric fuckton of people, he pays them decently, and he seems to trust them to do good things. I'm fairly certain he didn't personally ideate and iterate that particular pizza, but he did create the environment that made it happen. The true mark of a restaurant empire's success is how good the food is when the emperor isn't cooking.
That brings me to the thing that I think is ESR's most redeeming quality: it employs and supports a lot of people who aren't white men and who go on to do amazing things. Monica Dimas, for example, owner of Neon Taco, Little Neon Taco, Tortas Condesa, Sunset Chicken, Westman's Bagels, and probably a few Taco Times and a Six Flags she hasn't told me about, was an ESR alum before she was one of the city's foremost woman-of-color restauranteurs. Otra, given the fact that he is a 24-year-old with a level 1 sommelier certification and more Amaro knowledge than a human should have, will probably be a notable ESR alum someday.
Long story short, it's easy to knock Stowell for being more of a CEO than a chef these days, but it's hard to knock what he's done in both roles. Go get some pizza and see for yourself.