By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, November 21, 2004
The short-lived Palomino begat the even shorter-lived Jordans, and now there's Aria Trattoria, smack in the middle of the Ronald Reagan Building, one of downtown Washington's biggest office complexes. Why would anyone want to take over such a spooked address?
Co-owner Giles Beeker points to the potential audience: "Fifteen-thousand federal government workers" around Aria. Then there's the view. "Unmatched," the restaurateur says of the courtyard vista that some diners catch from their tables. Though it stumbled out of the gate in June without a chef, Aria has since brought on board Anthony Chittum, formerly chef de cuisine at the respected Equinox not far away.
The facade certainly looks more inviting than before, thanks to an enormous burgundy awning announcing the restaurant's name and glass-enclosed seating that curves around the perimeter of the dining room. There, the cafe-style tables look onto a sweeping stone courtyard graced by slender trees and metal sculpture. The picture suggests a plaza you might happen upon in Europe, except that no one in this scenario is dragging on a cigarette or dining with a pet. The patio at Aria is, as Beeker suggests, most pleasant.
The same cannot be said of the claustrophobic main dining room, painted in the same shade of yellow as hundreds of Italian restaurants and outfitted with fat columns that block your view of the crowd. Hovering above your head, here and there, are hula-hoop-size rings of light that look like something out of a Vegas lounge. They're cheesy. So is the elevator music that accompanies your conversation. People who visited this place in its previous incarnations might wonder what happened to the cavernous underground dining room, reached via a long and winding staircase that always made for grand entrances, no matter your name. Beeker hopes to turn the empty space into a nightspot, Gypsy, sometime next year.
Like a hotel restaurant that is forced to satisfy a wide range of customers' whims, Aria offers a number of tried-and-true staples. There's a hamburger, for instance, and it's a fine one -- the ground meat beefed up with a fistful of herbs and presented on a thick cushion of grilled focaccia. Pancetta and fontina give it an Italian spin. The wood-burning oven in the semi-open kitchen issues pizzas that are thin and chewy but not particularly memorable. Lunchtime finds a nifty deal in the antipasto bar, however, where customers select small, medium or large plates on which they can arrange $5, $8 or $11 worth of salads, cheeses and assorted Italian hors d'oeuvres. "Some people get the $5 plate and pile it really high," a waiter told me when I asked about the program one afternoon. Not everything on the buffet is worth your attention, but enough is: Smoky roasted yellow peppers, slivers of squid tossed with celery and onions, tomato-and-bread salad, and shrimp with white beans are all appealing.
Pastas are a strong suit, which should come as no surprise, given the chef's time at the Italian-influenced Equinox. The combinations at Aria might not be as refined, but the toppings and starches are mostly winners. An herb-laced crumble of tomatoey ground beef adorns supple wide pasta in the pappardelle Bolognese. It's a robust meal. Lighter, and just as satisfying, is linguine decked out with meaty mussels and pearly shrimp that are cooked just enough to warm them through. A garlicky olive oil brings the elements together. And in a nice touch, all the pastas can be ordered in half portions. That's a good thing, and not just for when you have a light appetite, because the pastas outshine most of the starters. The squash soup sprinkled with pumpkin seeds makes a pleasant beginning, and so does the bruschetta -- three slabs of grilled bread with toppings that change from visit to visit. But they all take a back seat to the noodles.
Alas, some of the meat dishes sound better than they taste. Roast leg of lamb is by turns juicy and bland, somewhat salvaged by its blanket of soft onions, roasted tomatoes and mint. And steak "Fiorentina" -- bearing no resemblance to the classic charred steak of that name in Italy -- shows up pre-sliced and dry; the most flavorful parts are the dish's velvety roasted peppers.
Just when I think pasta is the only worthwhile pursuit at Aria, I order swordfish salmoriglio, and breathe a sigh of relief. The fish is moist, meaty, and splashed with a caper and butter sauce that is restrained but welcome; a chunk of grilled romaine lends the entree a nice edge. Even better is the spit-roasted chicken, bedded on dark- green and utterly delicious braised kale, and made prettier by the soft yellow semolina "croutons" grouped alongside. I found that the cooking improved with each meal, as Chittum edited the menu he was handed when he started and added dishes inspired from his honeymoon visit to Italy earlier this fall.
For dessert, you'll find (surprise, surprise) tiramisu, which is predictably moist, sweet and fluffy, as well as a decent pear torte. Honestly, I'd rather have another glass of wine. Aria's list is, like the restaurant, evolving, but it already offers some charms. There's a pleasing prosecco for those who like soft bubbles; a delicious deal ($29 a bottle) in the Barbera d'Asti from Michele Chiarlo, a respected producer; and plenty of worthy choices from northeastern Italy, a region currently basking in attention from wine lovers. If you're lucky, a sommelier might drop by to suggest points of interest on the list. Open to the possibilities? Aria offers flights of wine (generous tastes of three different reds or whites) for a bargain $6.50. The wine service is one more reason to keep an eye on this newcomer -- and one more reason to overlook a few flaws as Aria settles into the neighborhood.