In McLean, A Just-Right Italian Touch
By Nancy Lewis
Sunday, September 11, 2005
Cafe Oggi has a name that perfectly fits its cooking.
Oggi means "today" in Italian. And although the owner of this Italian restaurant in McLean is from Sicily and the two chefs -- Pasquale Posito and Rosa Schinella -- are from Naples, the cooking is light and contemporary.
"We don't do meatballs here," said owner Renato Scozia.
Cafe Oggi has occupied a spot in downtown McLean for 14 years, attracting a steady crowd from surrounding neighborhoods in Arlington and Tysons Corner -- and from the Central Intelligence Agency, not far away.
Scozia said his restaurant isn't primarily a CIA hangout, though he admits to having diplomats, politicians and high-ranking government officials among the regulars. "We attract the people who live in McLean," he said. Regardless, as an inveterate eavesdropper at restaurants, I can attest that the conversations I overheard at Cafe Oggi tended more toward talk of revolutions and public policy than the real estate jargon, business banter and personal chitchat that dominate most places.
The single-story building fronts on Old Dominion Drive; a small outdoor seating area is screened from the road by a tangle of greenery.
Step inside, and the decor takes on an art deco flavor, with streamlined silvery ceiling fans, lots of glass brick, low-voltage high-tech lighting, and chairs and banquettes upholstered in a floral tapestry. To the right is a bar that was imported from Italy during a recent remodeling; the project also added a private dining room, painted the color of milk chocolate and hung with striking, realistic paintings -- notably one of a table and chairs.
On two weeknight visits during Washington's notorious August restaurant doldrums, the dining room filled early and stayed that way through much of the evening. Diners included young couples and older regulars, families and business groups. Many of the diners seemed to know one another as they stopped at nearby tables to chat, creating almost a private club atmosphere.
The menu isn't long, but there are numerous daily specials, and those dishes are often the most successful.
One night it was a creamy risotto with earthy porcini mushrooms, and a fish special of rockfish and red snapper, cooked just until opaque and flaky.
Another night it was an arugula and goat cheese salad, the greens dressed lightly with vinegar and oil and accented with a thick slice of summertime-good tomato, slightly charred on a grill; and a simple pasta dish of shells with a sheen of olive oil perked up with red pepper flakes and garlic slices that were a wonderful foil for bites of sweet lobster.
Overall, the kitchen has a light touch with pasta dishes. The cannelloni su spinaci is thin, silken sheets of pasta encasing a veal and spinach filling and napped with a creamy red tomato sauce. Meat tortellini are served with a velvety cream sauce. And while pasta dishes aren't main courses anywhere in Italy, servings at Cafe Oggi are sufficient to be entrees.
Among the appetizers, my favorite is the fried zucchini: Lego-shaped chunks that are battered and fried. They are as greaseless as the batter is crisp, and a wonderful way to start.
There are only a handful of fish and meat courses on the menu. Vitello Giudea consists of lightly sauteed veal scaloppine served in white wine sauce with slices of fresh artichoke -- a dish that can easily transport your taste buds to Italy.
Unfortunately, the fegato Veneziana isn't as good a travel vehicle. Rather than the shaved calf's liver and onion dish you can find in any good trattoria in Venice, here the liver is cut in quarter-inch-thick slices (and not properly deveined) and doused with a heavy sauce.
There is a good rendition of the ubiquitous tiramisu, sorbets and ice cream treats imported from Italy and, if you are lucky, a special dark-chocolate molten cake, served in a ramekin.
Oggi has a reasonably priced wine list, though this is the kind of food with which any Italian would prefer simple wines, and they are available by the glass.
As a final note, don't skip the espresso. It will make you think you are in Rome.