$$$$ ($25-$34)

Editorial Review

By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 27, 2001

Food is not all. Anyone who dines out with any regularity knows that the kitchen's contribution to a meal away from home is significant - but only part of what brings people to the table. If a restaurant is too loud or too quiet, it matters. If the room is lit to operating-room brightness or so dim you need a flashlight to read the menu, it can affect the entire dining experience. Some people would be happy with merely adequate cooking, if only their server would acknowledge their presence; other diners just wish their waiter would stop trying to be their best friend.

Maybe that's why I'm drawn to Bellissimo. It's a good little restaurant that concentrates on the particulars. From the street, it looks like a standard-issue restaurant that happens to have a hand-lettered sign on the door, reminding diners that proper dress is required (leave your shorts and T-shirts at home). Owner Giovanni Cocciante, a veteran of the late Cantina d'Italia in Washington and most recently of Zeffirelli in Herndon, is a suave presence in the dining room, and he clearly wants people to think of Bellissimo as a civilized retreat. Yet the place is otherwise free of pomp, as evidenced by walls that show off a Venetian mural and a watercolor of Joe DiMaggio. Walk in the door and you may find the entire dining room staff rushing to welcome you, as if ribbons were awarded to the employee who said "buona sera" first.

After you've eaten in this snug dining room, it's probably the service and ambience you'll remember most. Andrea Bocelli on the sound system helps set the scene. So do the tie-and-vested waiters, who swoop to the table with a basket of bread and a bottle of olive oil; they pour a dab of oil on a plate and dust it with grated Parmesan. One of them recites the day's specials, opening his eyes wide with enthusiasm and kissing his fingers in admiration. Who knew that veal saltimbocca could rouse such passion? The narration doesn't always translate as glowingly on the plate, but hearing about what the chefs - Fabrizio Diluca, who once worked at Cantina d'Italia, and Rolando
Funtes, previously of Goldoni in Washington - want you to try is always entertaining.

You're off to a fine start with a plate of swordfish carpaccio: cool, sheer slices of raw fish animated with capers, minced red onion, lemon and a grinding of pepper. There's beef carpaccio as well, drizzled with olive oil and garnished with arugula confetti and shards of Parmesan. Pinches of goat cheese and a sprinkling of walnuts dress up a salad of shaved fennel, heady with white truffle oil. On a hot day, these are pauses that refresh. Among the richer appetizers is a plate of four tender grilled scallops in a velvety
pesto sauce, which amounts to a small meal. Mussels in a thick cloak of tomatoes and herbs is also substantial, as is fried calamari with thin marinara sauce, though both are about as memorable as what you'd find in a
sports bar.

I've never met a pasta I didn't like at Bellissimo, and there are almost a dozen from which to choose. House-made gnocchi are tender and light, easy to warm to beneath their thin blanket of melted fontina cheese. Ravioli are fat with minced mushrooms, and fettuccine arrives decked out with goat cheese and
a zesty sausage ragu. If you're thinking about pasta as a first course, go easy; even the half portions are apportioned for trenchermen.

What follows on the menu is less even. Oh, the lamb chops are flavorful with rosemary and garlic, and a special of veal paired with prosciutto and sage was every bit as good as my table mates and I had been told. But the quail promoted by a waiter one night was stuffed with dry lamb sausage, and an otherwise decent piece of trout showed up with a vapid wine sauce and a shower of raw slivered almonds (toasting the nuts would have upped their appeal). What the main dishes have in common is satisfying vegetable accompaniments: batons of sweet carrots, maybe, or garlicky sauteed spinach. Someone, however, needs to teach the cooks how to make polenta so it doesn't come out dry and stiff.

While they're at it, maybe the restaurant could perform some surgery on the wine list. It's a blend of pretension and omission, sprinkled with misspellings and goofy commentary, and, worse, it doesn't give the years the wines were bottled. Red wine drinkers have better options than people looking for white wine, who face a wave of pinot grigio and chardonnay. At least the stemware is nice.

The prices at Bellissimo nudge it into the realm of a Big Night Out, so on any given visit you're likely to hear the clinking of wineglasses, perhaps a round of "Happy Birthday." No matter the occasion, Bellissimo works to bring a sense of downtown to its suburban location.

For dessert, the kitchen offers a pleasant tiramisu as well as a proper cannoli, which means that its horn of pastry is crisp rather than soggy and filled with a soft, modestly sweet ricotta filling laced with bits of chocolate. Even if you don't order dessert, though, you're likely to be treated to an after-dinner cordial (Sambuca if you're male, Amaretto if you're not) and sometimes a plate of biscotti.

The charm offensive works. "People who come once become regulars," says Cocciante - sometimes with the help of the kitchen, always thanks to the details.