Cesco Osteria

$$$$ ($15-$24)
Personable Italian spot stands above the Bethesda restaurant crowd with its innovative Tuscan menu.
Tue-Fri 11:30am-2:30pm
Mon-Thu 5:30pm-10pm
Fri-Sat 5:30pm-10:30pm
Sun 5:30pm-9:30pm
Bethesda (Red Line)

The Year of Italy: Cuisine and Culture

Small plates and Tuscan wine accompanied by a discussion by author L.M. Elliott of Leonardo da Vinci's first portrait.

Editorial Review

Cesco Osteria has polish, but it doesn’t sparkle

By Tom Sietsema

Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012

Francesco Ricchi says he faced two choices last year: The veteran Italian chef could give his tired, 14-year-old Bethesda restaurant, Cesco Trattoria on Cordell Avenue, a complete makeover or he could relocate to a part of town with "more action." Ricchi ended up closing the trattoria in October and installing Cesco Osteria in the 10,000 square feet of space previously held by McCormick & Schmick's on Woodmont Avenue.

There's a lot to take in: giant flaming torches lighting the way to the entrance, two menus at lunch, a splashy lounge called Co2 to the left of the door, 20-foot-high ceilings and Ricchi himself inspecting the dishes as they come off the line of the exhibition kitchen. (Jose Fuentes, a longtime associate, serves as chef de cuisine.)

The game plan has been modified since the osteria opened its doors in December, when half of the seating was designated as casual and half as formal, each half with a different menu. Now, no matter where you land, you get linen on your table and the chance to order pizza, previously offered only to diners gathered at the naked tables. McCormick & Schmick's was awash in wood; its replacement finds paint covering that wood and more mirrors and light than ever. Still, the end result is a little beige for my taste.

So is some of the food. Fans of the original Cesco will recognize a few dishes at the offshoot, including pappardelle with duck sauce and veal-stuffed ravioli, the latter undercooked when I tried them. Mindful of Ricchi's Tuscan background, I order ribollita, the region's famous bread-thickened vegetable soup. So dense you could eat it with a fork, Cesco's version brings together beans, Parmesan cheese, carrots, kale and warm herbs: a winter rib-sticker.

For the most part, there's little sense of what time of year it is, expressed in part by the dull peas served with grilled Mediterranean sea bass. Dinner is a roller-coaster ride of lows (baby octopus doing an impression of rubber bands in a salad) followed by modest highs (cue the smoky veal chop with charred bell peppers). Drinks are big and strong - and priced as if we're in Tokyo rather than a Washington suburb.

The stakes for Ricchi, 66, are high. "This is my last restaurant," says the former co-owner of I Ricchi in Dupont Circle and the late D'Acqua in Penn Quarter. "I want to do a good job."

So far, the biggest thrills at the restaurant are coming from the dancing flames - outside.