By Jennifer Lazzo
Searching for an authentic Italian dinner without flying to Italy or driving to D.C.? Look no further than Tortino Mare, one of Prince William’s newest restaurants, which serves hand-cut pasta, gourmet pizza and artistic desserts almost too beautiful to eat.
Located in Manassas Park, Tortino Mare is away from the hustle and bustle in a small strip mall near a police station, a convenience store and some homes. However, don’t let the location fool you. The first reaction most new diners have is, “Wow! I didn’t expect to see this inside.” It’s a response that chef-owner Noé Canales is pleased about and takes great pride in.
Falling In Love with Cooking Italian Food
Originally from El Salvador, Canales fell in love with cooking Italian food upon arriving in D.C. in the late 1990s when he was just 20 years old. As he worked his way up through the ranks in the kitchens of local restaurants, he learned how to cook, speak English and picked up a word or two of Italian, too.
Eventually, Canales realized he had his own vision for a restaurant and opened Tortino in D.C. in 2012. Why open another restaurant 30 miles west just a short five years later? “I want to make good food available for all to enjoy,” he said. “You don’t need to go to D.C. to eat good food.”
Canales focuses on staying true to Italian fare as Italians know it, not as Americans do. For his pasta and pizza he uses Caputo flour: a uniquely blended, fine-grain flour imported from Naples known for being extensible, or stretchy. He makes pizzas in 10-inch rounds, using quality ingredients such as prosciutto, arugula and fresh mozzarella.
In addition to pizzas ($14), Tortino Mare offers appetizers, such as mussels, lamb meatballs and calamari ($8-12); soups and salads ($8-14); pastas, such as spinach agnolotti, seafood linguini and the risotto of the day ($14-16); and entrees, such as Branzino (sea bass) fillet, pork chops and veal Marsala ($16-27).
Many dishes can be made vegetarian or gluten-free.
The interior is understated with taupe, wood and stone as the backdrop against which the dishes take center stage. Local artist Camilo Sanin painted a mural depicting the canals of Venice, which runs the length of a semi-private room adjacent to the main dining room; the colors are muted but warm. There is
also a private room, which seats 20 comfortably, near the open kitchen.
The open kitchen was crucial to the design of the restaurant. Canales first worked in an open kitchen 15 years ago and loved the idea. “It’s different. People see you making their food from scratch,” he said.
Interact with the Chef
Chef Franklin Hernandez enjoys interacting with diners from the open kitchen: “I’m so excited when people go in front of the kitchen and say, ‘Thanks, Chef. Your food was excellent.’ That makes me happy to continue doing what I do here.”
Hernandez and Canales have worked together for more than a dozen years, first at Al Tiramisu and Tosca, then Tortino and now Tortino Mare. Both emphasize how much they like to cook for others and see their joy when eating the chefs’ food.
“The presentation of our dishes is exciting, especially the dessert,” said Hernandez. “People who come for
the first time always take a picture. That’s the first impression—when you see the food with your eyes,
and it looks good, you say ‘Mmmm, I want to try that.’”
Mike Moynagh had a firsthand look at one of those beautiful desserts. On a rainy Sunday afternoon in October, the Manassas resident and his family were at Tortino Mare celebrating his daughter’s birthday. She was presented with a trio of gelato scoops surrounded by “Happy Birthday” written in chocolate.
They decided to go there based on a recommendation from a friend of his mother-in-law’s. They ate veal marsala, chicken alfredo, shrimp alfredo, lamb with risotto and Branzino. “It was all very good,” said Moynagh. “The lamb was so tender you could cut it with a fork.”
He praised the customer service and said his family didn’t feel rushed. “I have another daughter in college with a birthday coming up,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll be back!”
Tortino Mare is ideal for celebrations, both small and large. In addition to the indoor spaces, a large enclosed patio seats up to 50 people. It is surrounded by lush vegetation, including several rose bushes, that Canales tends himself. “In my country, you have to rely on yourself, so we do a bit of everything,” he said. “I like simple things.”
“I love it when people enjoy my food,” Canales continued. “People come here, and they’re learning [about authentic Italian food]. I won’t serve anything that I won’t eat myself.” Tortino Mare is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sunday and closed on Monday. It is located at 120 Kent Village Square, Manassas Park. Visit tortinomare.com or call 571-229-9455 for more information.
Jennifer Lazzo ([email protected]) is a freelance writer and editor, who earned a B.A. in technical journalism and political science from Colorado State University. She lives with her husband
and twin girls in Montclair.