Renato at River Falls

Italian, Seafood
$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

Renato, which for 17 years belonged to the di Chiara brothers (who are proprietors of Capri in McLean), had a family connection to Romeo and Juliet, a K Street hot spot in the mid-'70s and early '80s; the legendary New York restaurateur Romeo Salta, who helped open it, was the di Chiaras' uncle. (Romeo and Juliet is in the bloodlines of many a Washington area chef; it was there that Roberto Donna and Savino Racine met and conceived Galileo, Primi Piatti, etc., thus launching a whole generation of D.C. trattorias.) In fact, you might say Renato even had vague connections to Tirolo, since Romeo and Juliet was generally considered the Avis to Tiberio's Hertz.

Renato at River Falls, as it is now known, was sold last summer to Jeff Grolig, owner of the River Falls seafood and prepared-foods market next door and longtime seafood buyer for Sutton Place Gourmet. Grolig's plan is to maintain the restaurant's homey and hospitable style and generally unfussy menu while playing up the fresh seafood and meat. (He also retained most of the staff, including the famously ebullient host Enzo Iachetti.) The white-and-green garden-gazebo decor will be made over in warmer Mediterranean colors, but the shape of the rooms, with their window niches and banquettes, will remain.

The appetizers make a good first impression. The eggplant parmigiana, a longtime favorite, is a meal in itself, especially for eggplant fans because blessedly it's not breaded. Seafood chowder, really a sort of bisque with mixed fish and seafood -- a recipe attributed to Grolig himself -- is a filling bowl, especially if you indulge in the crusty white bread and ciabatta. A slightly cute but ingratiating pile of crabmeat over grilled portobellos swims in a lobster-tinged tomato sauce -- it probably ought to have its own soup spoon -- and a judicious bit of salt somewhere along the way would not be amiss.

Already the specials list usually includes a couple of fresh fish that can be ordered simply grilled (absolutely go for the branzino if available), fresh veal chops and occasionally osso buco. These new dishes are still shaking down: The large seafood-stuffed ravioli don't make a convincing argument for themselves; the bits of shrimp and scallops coexist without quite complementing one another, and the light tomato sauce, though of pleasant consistency, is pretty pedestrian. Osso buco, though a generous two-cut portion, was braised to excellent tenderness but might as well have been cooked in plain water for all the flavor it retained. And the butter was truculently cold.

Not surprisingly, however, all the fresh fish has been first-rate: the branzino, rockfish, salmon and all the various shellfish in linguini (larger-than-usual shrimp, scallops, mussels and clams). The old family-friendly pastas are pretty much the same -- generous and comfy. Veal parmigiana bore a fair weight of cheese and sauce, but the meat beneath was tender. It will be interesting to see how this old neighborhood uncle grows into his new duds.

--Eve Zibart (March 9, 2007)