Timpano Italian Chophouse

Italian, Steakhouse
$$$$ ($15-$24)
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Editorial Review

At Timpano, a Tune-Up Is in Order

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 17, 2006

There's an old saying that you can tell the best place to eat along the road by the number of vehicles parked there. That's been the constant at Timpano: a steady bulwark of sedans and SUVs, even though several other chophouses along the same stretch of Rockville Pike north of Montrose Road and just as visible have opened and closed for lack of traffic. But folk wisdom aside, once you enter Timpano territory, you're better off already knowing your way around the menu.

Unquestionably, it's a good cocktail lounge (and the high quality of the bartending undoubtedly has much to do with its popularity). Just retro-Rat Pack enough, suave without being schticky, the lounge features cushy couches and chairs, an enclosed outdoor smoking area for unreconstructed imbibers, a classic sweep of a bar and, over the "living room" fireplace, a portrait of the chief smoothie himself, Sinatra, who provides much of the classic jazz soundtrack when there is no live music. Since the bar menu includes one of the kitchen's best appetizers, sizzling skillet-roasted mussels, the great temptation on a cool afternoon is to settle in over the coffee table with a load of mussels, a glass of wine and a good book (before the happy hour rush, of course).

The dining room is fairly attractive as well, with a kind of balcony above the long, exposed kitchen, which runs the entire length of the back wall and outdoor-market-style legends overhead ("bread and cheese"). The more straightforward dishes on the menu, such as the veal chop, various cuts of beef and seared tuna, plus a surprisingly delicate lasagna, are perfectly satisfactory. A salad of watercress and arugula with blue cheese, candied walnuts and apples is a very good version of that popular starter, and the pair of crab cakes, though not so lumpy as some, is better than many and a nice small meal at $12.95.

The tuna carpaccio, however, was so bland it was hard to imagine it had not been frozen, and what flavor remains was overwhelmed by the heavy aioli squeezed over it. The same aioli was similarly crisscrossed over the crab cakes and didn't do them much of a favor, being almost entirely bereft of any alleged lemon juice.

Fried calamari was fairly light, and its pesto sauce was a nice change over the usual marinara, but the spinach and artichoke formaggio was far more formaggio than vegetable. The various savory flatbreads seem to have lost much of their savor over time, mostly because of the base; the dough is crackery rather than breadlike, and when it's heated under the otherwise pleasant toppings (chicken and sun-dried tomatoes, sausage and caramelized onions, etc.), it stales.

The veal marsala was better than at many big-turnover restaurants, tender and not overly sweet. The so-called cioppino, on the other hand, was not a light, fresh tomato stew but one of those kitchen-sink seafood combos over pasta with a cream sauce (the menu reads "lobster broth") and oversalted to boot. (Any time salmon shows up in mixed seafood dishes, its flavor so discordant against lighter, less oily fishes, it's hard not to think "leftovers.") And the rock shrimp and lobster ravioli were unspeakably dull and heavy, topped with tinny tiny shrimp.

One of the biggest issues seems to be with the dining service. When it opened, Timpano had a somewhat older and apparently more experienced staff; now it's a younger crew, and all well-meaning, but not so polished. One night, when a party was seated with only the remains of a round of cocktails purchased while waiting for the table, no refills or wine was suggested -- not a particularly good economic move for either restaurant or waiter, as tips are figured on total bills. When the wines-by-the-glass list was finally requested, the menu was brought and the waiter disappeared for some time. Eventually he was waved over, the order placed and the entire dinner completed without the wine ever appearing. It had to be taken off the bill -- a procedure that requires a manager's approval, which also took longer than it should have -- an episode that might have been shrugged off except that very nearly the exact same thing happened a couple of weeks later. (On the second occasion, a mistaken charge also required a manager's intervention.) When a diner asked to take an unfinished chop home, it was packaged without any of the mashed potatoes, just lying there lonely in the plastic dish. (Too bad: The mashed potatoes were quite good.) Water glasses are left unrefilled; ditto bread baskets.

Timpano is not quite a chain -- there are three restaurants in Florida and one outside of Chicago -- but a mass market mentality is beginning to creep in to what has been a neighborhood favorite. Maybe management needs to get out of the fast lane for a few minutes and check under the stove hood.