Editors' pick

Sergio's Ristorante Italiano

$$$$ ($15-$24)
At Sergio's, simple pleasures soar.
Lunch: Mon-Fri 11:30 am-2 pm; Dinner: Mon-Sat 5-9:30 pm
(Silver Spring)
Silver Spring (Red Line)

Editorial Review

By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 8, 2004

Given its location in the underbelly of a chain hotel in Silver Spring, it's hardly surprising that Sergio's has a low profile among Washington-area restaurants; even a hungry passerby would have trouble finding it. Owner Sergio's Toni, a native of Rome who purchased the Italian restaurant in the Hilton basement in 1982 and changed its name to his own in 1989, has never been the subject of widespread restaurant buzz. So the discovery of this casual spot for delicate veal and fresh pasta dishes comes as an unexpected pleasure. Better still, it's only a few steps away from a new artistic landmark: the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre.

On my first visit, an early positive sign is delivered by a high-spirited retirement-age couple waiting for the valet parking attendant. "This is our place," he says, giving her a squeeze. She adds, bubbling: "We've been coming here for 15 years. It's always the same, always good."

But when I take a look inside, I can't help thinking that the food must be mighty good to make up for the surroundings. The low, textured ceiling and walls the color of yellow cake batter cry out for a refreshing coat of paint to lift spirits. No flowers or plants live here. A series of Palladian drawings and a sweeping mural down one wall are a nice touch. Still, bad lighting casts a ghoulish, unflattering pallor over the customers, and bulky columns cut some tables off from the rest of the room.

Not that anyone seems to mind. It's a full house, and people are laughing and chattering and whooping it up as if they had never seen noodles before. A big guy with a natural bravura greets me and my guests at the door, leading us off to a comfortable corner table. This must be the man himself: Sergio's.

"Hey, how are you? Good to see you. Let's have something to eat," he says in a lilting Italian accent that is as thick as the cream sauces I see on most of the plates at nearby tables. His hands are scooping air as if he were a maestro on the podium. In New York's trattoria-packed Little Italy neighborhood, Sergio's Toni would be just another eager face. But in these parts, he ranks as a refreshing and charming anomaly. It turns out that he personally makes all the fresh pastas, every day. Many members of his kitchen and wait staff have been with him for 15 years or more, and their dedication is obvious.

The cooking is old-school, too, mostly northern Italian dishes grounded in loads of butter and cream. Dieters beware. But frankly, I don't mind dairy richness, in moderation. And after three visits and a sampling of most of the menu, I'm convinced that the caloric trade-off can be perfectly reasonable.

I'm talking about a special of plump, handmade, perfectly cooked and tender ravioli stuffed with delicately seasoned ground veal and pork, swimming in a luscious porcini mushroom and walnut cream sauce that I did not hesitate to clean from my plate with the doughy-crusty Italian-style bread.

The entree portions are large and encourage sharing. A split entree would make a fine way for two people to start a meal. But a handful of the appetizers are also appealing. One of the best is the bruschetta: grilled garlic bread drizzled with olive oil and topped with finely diced tomato and, of all things, celery -- an unexpected taste on toast. A dozen tender mussels are exceedingly fragrant with white wine and parsley. Another appetizer, called the "antipasto special," is out of the ordinary: Two meaty grilled shrimp, a split link of piquant Italian sausage and eight tortellini in cream sauce share a small platter. It's an odd array, but all good.

There are occasional inconsistencies. One night, a seafood salad of chopped shrimp and squid with bits of eggplant and red bell pepper was drowning in a watery vinaigrette. But that same evening my friends and I enjoyed a mellow and warming soup of intense, fragrant chicken broth with veal tortellini. And we made short work of a sizable portion of paper-thin Parma ham paired with slabs of milky mozzarella.

Saucy, rich food of this caliber calls for distinctive wines to match. But you won't find them at Sergio's, thanks in part to Montgomery County's monopoly on wine distribution. A reasonably extensive, Tuscany-heavy list of Italian mass-market wines is available, but the county's control of distribution limits the range available. Still, the restaurant has no one to blame but itself for one of the wine list's biggest flaws: It is inexcusable to ask patrons to choose wines, some costing more than $70 a bottle, from a list that doesn't even include vintage dates.

Almost every veal dish is exceptional at Sergio's. It might be a gorgeous grilled, butterflied veal chop -- a special one night -- finished with a light sauce of veal broth and a hint of Gorgonzola cheese. Or it could be the fork-tender veal scaloppine sauteed with green onion and portobello mushroom in a smoky marsala wine sauce. Perfect. An unfortunate exception in the veal category involved another scaloppine dish, lovely on its own, that was overwhelmed by a thick topping of watery cooked spinach that diluted and ruined the wine sauce. The veal shanks in the long-simmered osso buco had been poorly trimmed of fat and sinew, yet the marjoram-scented sauce, with a hint of lemon rind, was super with the meaty bites.

From the sea to Silver Spring comes a flaky grilled rockfish fillet with delectable crispy edges where the meat meets the skin, enhanced by a butter-based sauce. On to the Italian classic of fettuccine and grilled shrimp in garlic butter, which pushes richness to the limit. For a change of pace, the same fine shrimp come to the table in a Gorgonzola and mushroom cream sauce that sends me calling to the waiter for more bread. "You can't go wrong with the tuna special -- nice and rare," the waiter advises. But the slab of fish is well past "rare," unfortunately, more than likely because of its thick, insulating blanket of steaming white kidney beans.

At Sergio's, simple pleasures soar. "My kids will love this. No onions," a pal of mine offered one night while twirling a fork through the fettuccine ragu. The least expensive dish on the menu, at $11, it was a real sleeper: a terrific mountain of noodles bathed in a light and perfectly balanced tomato sauce that tasted only of pure fruits from the vine.

After most of these entrees, a creamy dessert like tiramisu is just too much. Besides, the portion I sampled was, primarily, runny mascarpone. But I'm crazy about two of Sergio's's gelato desserts imported from Milan. My favorite is a baseball-size sphere of ultra-light lemon gelato with tart lemon syrup in the center, the whole business covered with crunchy meringue sprinkles. The second is a similar chocolate version with a zabaglione center, coated with crushed, caramelized hazelnuts and cocoa powder. They're served quartered. But you might not want to share.

Sergio's's regular customers tend to arrive early, say, between 6 and 7 p.m. Most nights, the place is empty when the kitchen closes at 9:30. So if your plan is dinner and a show at AFI, it would be best to come here first. I guarantee you won't even think about buttered popcorn.