A La Lucia: Sophisticated but Neighborly Italian
By Nancy Lewis
Thursday, January 25, 2007
When Michael Nayeri left Galileo after nearly two decades as general manager and maitre d' of the landmark Washington restaurant, he wanted to open his own neighborhood Italian place. The admirable result for three years now is A la Lucia, in northern Old Town Alexandria.
Located in a block of shops at Madison and North Royal streets, A la Lucia unfolds in reverse: The entry is at the eatery's main service station, with glasses and tableware arrayed on a counter. A large corridor -- with several booths and a couple of large round tables -- leads to a separate, more formal dining room in one direction, and to a small wine bar in another. And off the wine bar is an entrance to an adjoining private party room that doubles as a wine store.
By day, harsh sunlight from large windows that line the corridor and wine bar makes the inner dining room the preferred seating choice. The walls here are caramel-colored, the banquettes that line opposite walls are upholstered in chocolate and handsome black-and-white prints, and photographs of Italy are juxtaposed with colorful Italian pottery.
Day or night, most tables are likely to be filled with a lively crowd -- including a large number of regulars from the surrounding office buildings and residential areas. Nayeri said he has numerous customers who dine at A la Lucia several times a week, and with good reason. You can get a big bowl of pasta for about $10 at lunch, and dinner won't break the bank. There's plenty of on-street parking -- a rarity along Old Town's King Street.
The service is a little erratic but friendly, and the noise level is too high for anything approaching sweet nothings. The wine list is well-chosen, especially the wines by the glass. Chef Jose Ramirez came from Tiberio's, another landmark Washington Italian restaurant. This is a neighborhood place that any neighborhood would be lucky to claim.
The menu is tilted toward Southern Italian favorites -- tomato-based sauces instead of cream sauces -- but this is no 1950s spaghetti house. Here, the tomato sauce is likely to feature light-textured meatballs served on a dish of creamy polenta, or spicy sausage and peppers over rigatoni. But there are dishes with cream sauces, too, such as the spinach and ricotta-filled agnolotti (half-moon pillows of stuffed pasta from the northern Piedmont region).
Nothing on the lunch menu is more than $13. Start with a bowl of minestrone chock-full of vegetables in a creamy base, a Caesar salad with a tart, light dressing and shreds of Parmesan cheese or, at dinner, a small plate of peppery salami petals surrounding a round of tart goat cheese.
The luncheon menu also includes a selection of panini (grilled sandwiches). Some are very much like the panini available in bars throughout Italy, but I have never encountered a corned beef with Russian dressing panino there. There are also pizzas and a few main courses, including a plate-sized chicken paillard, grilled and served with a mound of baby arugula drizzled with a light olive oil, and delicate veal scalloppine smothered with mushrooms and a brandy cream sauce.
If you don't choose a pasta or main course at lunch, you'll have to pay $2 for the basket of bread: Go for it. The bread is crusty and fine-grained, yet chewy. The server will likely pour a little of their excellent olive oil onto a small plate for dipping, but I think this bread deserves some of the fine unsalted butter available upon request.
The dinner menu is more extensive -- augmented by a daily list of a dozen or so specials, including braised wild boar with red wine and vegetables served over polenta -- a great northern Italian dish.
Pasta dishes, available in half-portions at dinner, include simple spaghetti with meat sauce and an excellent linguine with clams. The pasta is properly cooked al dente, and the sauces never overwhelm.
Entrees include grilled salmon, with fresh tomatoes, pine nuts and basil, and chicken Marsala -- a boneless breast with a part of the wing attached, flattened and napped with a Marsala sauce that doesn't overwhelm the subtle taste of the chicken.
There are only four dessert selections: tiramisu, cannoli, panna cotta and, my favorite, berries with zabaglione. The accompanying berries are firm and fresh, but the zabaglione is so light and refreshing, I can close my eyes and pretend I'm in Venice.