$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

At Capri, Italian Hospitality

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Jan. 27, 2006

Nick is a four-letter word -- as is menu, for that matter -- but it's a blessing rather than an imprecation at Capri. Because although much of the regular menu here is good enough to keep patrons coming back (some obviously quite regularly), it's Nick's interest in people, his restless desire to enlarge upon the somewhat Americanized recipes in favor of more authentic fare and his naturally outgoing personality, which leads him to reach out to customers and offer ordering advice, that make this seemingly pedestrian suburban restaurant remarkable.

In downtown McLean, restaurants age rather like dogs -- that is, five years is almost like a quarter-century, so quickly has the commercial neighborhood around Old Dominion Drive and Chain Bridge Road expanded. Capri, which opened in 2001 as Michael's, belongs to Nick's brother Renato di Chiara, who also owns Renato's in Potomac and whose Washington resume goes back to that '70s hot spot Romeo and Juliet. That makes it a kind of landmark in the neighborhood, or at least a standard.

Brother Renato's theatrical mane of snowy hair and occasional lapses into "old K Street" style (the kind where "haute" is pronounced "haughty," especially to newcomers, but where regulars are given a royal reception) have made him a local legend; but Nick (or Nicky, as he sometimes introduces himself) is the sort of Italian neighbor you hope you'd meet if you bought a run-down Italian farmhouse and planned to write a book. When he offers to arrange a dish for you in the real Sicilian style, thank your Mediterranean stars, because life, or at least dinner, is about to become a whole lot better. (To be fair, Renato responds to repeat appearances with increasing warmth; it's just a sort of Italian sibling yin-yang thing.)

For instance: Seafood is proclaimed a specialty at Capri, and a whole grilled orata (sea bream) was admirably prepared, lightly crisped at the edges and moist within; and the side of mixed vegetables -- potatoes, green beans, broccoli and carrots -- was correctly cooked. (The fact that the side's preparation is worth mentioning says something sad about too many restaurants these days.) However, a special request of simply grilled rockfish arrived an ineffable degree more elevated than the orata, just on the line between raw and meltingly tender, and the slyly elegant scalloped potatoes on the side would have earned extra points at a Cordon Bleu exam. (They may actually have been slightly more oyster-shell-shaped than scallop, but the visual pun was good enough for a giggle.)

On the menu, linguini with baby clams is offered in either a white wine or peeled tomato sauce; at Nick's recommendation, it comes tossed simply in a bit of olive oil and the clams' natural brine. (By Nick, one obviously means chef Raffaele Mastromariano as well, as it is he who actually has his hands on the food.)

From the standard menu comes spinach- and ricotta-stuffed agnolotti, the filling impressively "green" in flavor rather than cheese-bland and in nicely delicate pasta, but the sweet mascarpone sauce, in a quantity that would have been sufficient to assemble a party-size lasagna casserole, completely overwhelmed them. (To his credit, the waiter did say the agnolotti came in a cream sauce but was a little too offhand to make the warning clear.) And at $18.95, five agnolotti was perhaps a bit scanty. The lunch menu includes a dish of mixed white and green angel hair pasta with cream sauce and peas a la Romeo and Juliet -- a sentimental favorite among area retirees, no doubt, but not terribly traditional.

On the other hand, another recommendation, a home-style version of veal Milanese, was an understated delight: The scallopa is pounded uniformly thin and breaded but emerges tender and crisp, an underrated and too rarely performed feat of culinary legerdemain, and then is topped with a salad of chopped romaine and arugula with cherry tomatoes in a light vinaigrette that perfectly offsets the breading. It's not only one of those simple, why-didn't-I-think-of-that pleasures but so generous a serving that it almost ensures a second meal. (And at $22.95, it was a much more substantial dish than the ravioli.)

Frying here is unusually delicate: Slim-sliced zucchini is tempura-light and still succulent. Nightly specials are generally best bets -- marinated rabbit, osso bucco (good if not great, and with long, rich marrow bones), hearty al dente risottos del giorno -- though there are the rare curiosities, such as a sort of duck breast cordon bleu, with smoked mozzarella and prosciutto, about which the wait staff was subtly restrained (and we took the hint).

Another intriguing thing is that Capri's lunch menu has many popular dishes that don't appear on the dinner menu -- that is, it's not just a reduced or leftover version -- including carpaccio, veal tonnato and pasta with eggplant and buffalo ricotta. But the most endearing thing about Capri is that you may call in advance and ask for a favorite dish. Give Nick and Raffaele a day or so, and they will find you sweetbreads or rabbit or pretty much whatever your tiny percentage of unadulterated Italian blood is craving. Ask for the gnocchi and you will receive. Capri is the sort of place that will make anyone welcome but can make the receptive diner feel sincerely at home.

Happy St. Nick's day, any day.