By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, January 4, 2004
Thank goodness for intrusive waiters.
Months ago, a friend and I were picking at our meals in a fancy but uninspired restaurant when our conversation drifted to vacations yet to be taken and the hope of exploring someplace truly different.
"Iceland," I said, starting my wish list.
"How about Bolivia?" my pal continued.
At that precise moment, our waiter was refilling our water glasses -- and eavesdropping. A slow smile spread across his face. His eyes lit up. It had been a while since he had been to his native Bolivia, he said, but whenever he wanted a taste of home, he treated himself to a meal at Tutto Bene in Arlington.
"Isn't that Italian?" I asked.
He nodded, anticipating the skepticism. "Yes," he said, "but not for lunch on Saturday and Sunday."
I made a mental note to check out his suggestion, but I kept getting distracted. New restaurants were opening up left and right, chefs were playing musical chairs and, frankly, if the 16-year-old Tutto Bene was such a big deal, why weren't more people talking it up? Then, one night, when my plans to visit another restaurant fell through, I decided to try Tutto Bene. Even if saltenas -- Bolivia's nod to empanadas -- were my ultimate goal, I also wanted to know how the pasta and pizza stacked up.
Tutto Bene hails from the old-fashioned, spaghetti-and-meatballs school, all hanging plants and red banquettes. Just about every cliche you can think of turns up in its big front dining room. The murals on the dark red walls depict the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Colosseum and Mount Vesuvius. "Vo-LAR-e!" punctuates the otherwise subdued background music, and foil-wrapped pats of butter -- olive oil would be too trendy -- appear with your bread.
A plate of fritto misto caught me off guard. It was piping hot, abundant with lightly breaded calamari and served with a marinara sauce that tasted fresh and spunky. The appetizer had real personality. So did a bowl of vegetable soup, chock-full of big chunks of carrot, celery and potato in a delicate broth. Every other person walking through the door appeared to stop at the bar to pick up a pizza order, so I followed that lead. I asked my waitress which of the handful of pies she preferred. "The white pizza!" she said instantly. The crust was neither too thick nor too thin, nicely blistered from its time in the wood-fired oven, both chewy and crisp. A light covering of cheese, scattered with a few sun-dried tomatoes and plenty of garlic, upped the pleasure quotient.
Those good first impressions held up among the meat dishes and pastas. Veal is one of Tutto Bene's strong suits, be it served as a thick, juicy chop or thinly cut, showered with a forest of sliced mushrooms and lapped with a light brandy cream sauce. A side of spaghetti and chunky tomato sauce comes with either preparation. Those for whom decisions are difficult -- or people who are really, really hungry -- can try the pasta combination, a strapping plate that brings together cannelloni, manicotti and tender, white-cream-sauce-dressed gnocchi. It's a lot of food if you don't play in the NFL, and the cannelloni and manicotti don't measure up to the melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi, yet it's plenty of simple satisfaction.
The Italian food is good, but my mission at Tutto Bene was Bolivian cooking. So I returned on a Saturday afternoon to find what the waiter in the fancy restaurant had described months earlier: a foyer packed with people waiting to pick up saltenas, a dining room crowded with what appeared to be Bolivian faces, and a host who led me past them all to a second big dining room in the rear.
Sitting by myself but in view of the fun taking place up front, I opened the menu to see ..... fritto misto, spaghetti and pizza. I'd been handed the Italian menu! Disappointed, I flagged down a waitress and explained I didn't want to sit in an empty dining room and I wasn't there for Italian food. She smiled sympathetically, escorted me back to the front room and told the host that I was there for the Bolivian menu, written in Spanish.
Even before the waitress took the time to translate, I knew I was in the right place when a man at a neighboring table excused himself from his companions and began playing guitar in the corner. The songs were clearly familiar to the families and young couples in the audience.
Trays of small, football-shaped saltenas fly in and out of the ovens in the kitchen like commuter flights at Reagan National. Pay attention to how your neighbors tackle them. Those in the know use a spoon to remove a small piece from the top of the faintly sweet pastry, a trick that keeps the slightly soupy insides together. There's a choice of fillings: crumbled beef or shredded chicken. Both are immensely satisfying mini-meals that also pack in raisins, chopped egg, diced potato and sweet peas for about what it costs to buy a greeting card. You might have to ask for it, but the green sauce (llajua), a fiery puree of jalapenos, adds flames to the snack.
The detour to Bolivia doesn't end there. Sopa de mani, for instance, is a delectable ground peanut soup (though next time I'll ask them to hold the french fry garnish, thanks). Thin slices of beef tongue, spread with a zesty brick-red sauce, cover cooked potato halves in the very good aji de lengua, while in the soothing but plain pique a lo macho, beef strips are tossed with potatoes, onions, jalapenos and chunks of pink sausage -- everything flavored from beer in the recipe. Aside from the saltenas, the one dish you shouldn't miss is fricase paceno, a big bowl of golden broth filled with marble-size kernels of soft white corn and fat chunks of tender pork. Ignited by the chile known as aji amarillo, the liquid will make your lips tingle, and the meat has a robust quality that I find missing in a lot of pork these days.
Tutto Bene lets diners sup in Little Italy during the week and lunch in the Andes on the weekend. Sign me up for both trips.