For undercover Italian
By Justin Rude
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 24, 2011
With its restaurant-group pedigree, huge dining spaces and well-trained staff, Lia’s is hardly what you would describe as a small neighborhood restaurant. But when you look at its immediate neighbors — Maggiano’s, the Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang’s, to name a few — it almost feels that way. And for diners perusing their alfresco options, the five-year-old Friendship Heights restaurant from chef Geoff Tracy (of Chef Geoff’s fame) offers something those cookie-cutter corporates can’t: one of the neighborhood’s best patios.
The largely covered outdoor space facing Willard Avenue is flanked by a fountain and potted foliage, creating a bit of a remove from the traffic buzzing on busy Wisconsin Avenue less than a block away. The space can easily accommodate large groups, and the contemporary Italian American menu has everything you want for comfortable, if not showy, business and family gatherings: It’s prodigious, polished and predictable, but not pedestrian.
On the menu: Tracy’s menu at Lia’s is a tour of familiar regional Italian favorites, from pastas and risottos to charcuterie and cheese plates to pizzas and sandwiches. A menu of special lunch items includes saffron risotto piled with seafood, generous platters of spaghetti and meatballs, cooked-to-order New York strip steak and a selection of entree-size salads.
Seek out dishes that originate in the sea or end up in the fryer. The shrimp, mussels and calamari atop risotto are abundant and perfectly cooked. The garlic fries that land alongside my steak steal the show. Likewise, Lia’s shareable plates often surpass the entrees: Meatball sliders create an awkward moment when it comes down to who gets the last one, and an appetizer of crisp, lightly battered calamari embodies the best of both sea and fryer.
An early-week star: On Mondays and Tuesdays, when many restaurants aren’t even open, Lia’s offers an extra incentive for the lunch crowd, especially those who plan to order a drink or two. Bottles of wine are half-price on Mondays, and happy-hour specials run all day both days. That means $9 pizzas, $6 burgers and $1 off all draft pints, among other deals.
Something sweet: Save room. Lia’s desserts, which include ricotta doughnuts, cannoli and house-made gelatos and sorbets, are some of the best things that come out of the kitchen.