By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, Oct. 5, 2003
Lupo's Italian Chophouse is that rare bird in Prince George's County: a serious restaurant. Even better, it's a place to eat without any attachment to a chain. Opened by brothers Anthony and Peter Lupo, who also run Il Lupo in Fairfax, the Maryland offshoot was designed with its neighbors in mind. This means there is $7 pizza to appease the appetites and bank accounts of the school set (the University of Maryland sits right next door) and more elegant fish specials to draw folks with more refined tastes. "We're trying to hit every base," says Anthony Lupo.
For the most part, the game plan works. And it takes place in a building that starts with a sports bar and goes on seemingly forever -- picture 7,500 square feet of brick walls and yellow paint -- yet manages to come off more personal than its size would suggest. Lupo's engaging young servers act like they have a stake in the success of the business, doling out honest appraisals of the cooking and making certain that your needs are met.
A bowl of minestrone has me looking up to see if there's an Italian mother hovering over my shoulder. It's a generous bowl of soup, with a clear broth supporting skin-on cubes of potato, soft noodles and carrots and celery, which lend a subtle sweetness. Steamed littleneck clams are simple and satisfying, nicely flavored thanks to their garlicky white wine broth. Fried calamari faces a lot of competition around town, and this kitchen's version holds its own: The breading is light, the tentacles are tender, the marinara sauce is appropriately robust. As for the pizza, which makes a good shared appetizer, its crust is pleasantly chewy and the toppings are fine. A mixed salad tossed with blue cheese and a balsamic vinaigrette would have been better without its sliced pears, which were rock hard when I tried them. But ordering a salad here might be superfluous, given that a green salad comes with an entree order.
Main courses yield a parade of tried-and-true Italian favorites, some executed better than others. If it's veal you're looking for, opt for the thick, smoky chop with velvety mushrooms and mashed potatoes instead of the veal piccata, whose thin slices of tenderloin are sullied by an excess of butter that not even lemon and capers can erase. A side of pasta with a light tomato sauce helps balance the equation. Of the pastas, I'm partial to squid scattered over a big bowl of linguine, simple and tasty, and the crespoline, a crepe wrapped around a fresh-tasting filling of spinach and ricotta cheese, everything blanketed in a tangy tomato sauce (that would be the Lupo brothers' mother's recipe, by the way). A bowl of spaghetti comes with a creamy meat sauce that sneaks some cumin into its seasoning. It's not particularly Italian, but the stuff sure is comforting. And if it's a straightforward piece of fish you want, grilled tuna fits the bill. Cooked to a rosy center, the fish is further flattered by some herbed roast potatoes and a delicate mascarpone sauce.
Lupo's should consider rewriting its endings. Tiramisu lacks both much coffee or chocolate flavor, while zabaglione -- traditionally frothy and marsala-sweetened whipped egg yolks -- is too thick and lacks any suggestion of wine. Cannoli are decent, but nothing more, and the espresso tastes bitter. The lone success in this category turns out to carry an American accent: The warm apple crisp is rich with cinnamon, fruit and walnuts. Despite a few underachievers, some of us are happy to take Lupo's Chophouse as it is: a big fish in a tiny pond.