$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

A veteran of Italian kitchens opens one of his own
By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Name an established Italian kitchen in Washington and chances are good Noe Canales has cooked there. Since he arrived from El Salvador in 1990 - at which time he promptly landed a job as a dishwasher at the late Bice, only to move up to salad-making in less than a month - Canales has worked in noted restaurants such as Cafe Milano in Georgetown and Al Tiramisu in Dupont Circle to the posh Tosca downtown.

The chef has a place of his own now, a modest but endearing 60-seat restaurant called Tortino , named in part, says Canales, for the ease with which it rolls off the tongue. Opened in late November, its two low-ceilinged dining rooms and bar fill a hole in a neighborhood with relatively few places to break bread, let alone twirl pasta.

Someone in a vest and bowtie is apt to greet and seat you with a smile. "I wanted to do a little place with quality," says the chef. That's apparent in his three-color salad jazzed up with almonds, goat cheese and a lemony dressing and in his fettuccine, which he makes himself and drapes with a Bolognese sauce of ground veal shot through with fresh thyme, rosemary and bay leaf.

Tortino doesn't ace the risotto test, however (some of the grains are mush, others resist the teeth), and as enticing as swordfish with braised cabbage and grilled eggplant might read on paper, the centerpiece simply tastes . . . wet. From someone who spent seven years as sous-chef at Al Tiramisu, I also expected a tiramisu with more finesse, although even an okay version of the creamy classic is all too easy to finish.

Try this: Order that pretty chiffonade of radicchio, arugula and endive. Follow it with a pork chop that picks up flavor from its marinade of olive oil, sage and thyme and is grilled to the shade you request. Spoon into some jiggly panna cotta, garnished with macerated fruit, for dessert.

To go in knowing Tortino's strengths is to depart with plans to return.