Umberto's Cocina

$$$$ ($14 and under)
Umberto's Cocina photo
Robert A. Reeder/The Post

Editorial Review

Umberto's: Savoring The Taste Of Success

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 30, 2006

A 12-year-old boy, determined to make enough money to help his ill and impoverished mother, sails by himself to the United States -- let's say to Montgomery County. He gets a job as a busboy in a pizzeria and begins working his way up through the staffs of area Italian kitchens, picking up English from stray conversation with customers. He becomes a cook and then a waiter, double-shifting or working construction on the side and often putting in 80 to 90 hours a week. In addition to sending money to his family, he starts saving for himself, and after the seven years that all good fairy tales require, he saves enough to buy the whole restaurant.

It's the great American story, and in the case of Santos Medrano, it's the great Americ as story, because Medrano came not from Italy but from El Salvador, and the restaurant he bought after seven years' servitude -- okay, waiting tables -- is Umberto's Cocina in North Potomac.

Tucked into the back corner of Cabin John Shopping Center, Umberto's has been around long enough to be in at least its second generation of patrons, or even third (and sometimes all together). In fact, although its reputation had faltered a bit, many longtimers credit Medrano with re-energizing the place since he took it over in late 2004. Its two rooms, elaborately and enticingly painted with trompe d'oeil balconies and archway, vines and classical statuary, ought to ravish the imaginations of romantics of all ages.

These days, when family-Italian menus frequently wander for page after page, Umberto's comes in at medium long but not exhaustive. That's not counting the pizzas, a number of which regularly roll out for kids' birthday parties or adult appetizers. And there are a fair number of pedestrian dishes among them that might be better elsewhere: chicken parmigiana, generous but pounded into submission as well as into scallopini; piles of fried calamari that are tender but bland; a generous splay of roasted red peppers excessively (or extravagantly, depending on your addictions) flurried with raw garlic; fresh and palm-size, though perhaps not artisanal, mozzarella sliced with tomatoes; and so on. The breads are dullish, though the welcome presence of both vinegar and oil cruets on the table means you can add a little punch to them. The spaghetti that accompanies most entrees is sometimes a little more a la Denny's than al dente.

On the other hand: Whole wheat pasta can be substituted for white, and from the amount of marinara sauce going down per customer, Santos Medrano could be Salvadoran for San Marzano tomatoes. (Carbophobes can dispense with pasta altogether in favor of one of the vegetable sides.)

Zuppa de mare is a fragrant seafood pasta of old-fashioned generosity, with jumbo shrimp, clams, mussels and calamari cooked just enough to stiffen at the ends, the sort of dish that will remind many older MoCo residents of the late, lamented Sylvia's.

The veal piccata is lightly floured, lightly sauteed and just lemony enough, and the capers were happily shaken free of brine. A side of grilled eggplant comes as three center slices, long but mandoline thin, simply tossed on the grill, thank you. "Veggi" lasagna is a neighborly casserole of ricotta and spinach, really a trio of green-stuffed cannelloni under a canopy of cheese and sauce (lasagna Margherita, so to speak).

Osso buco comes as two large pieces, a little on the beefy side according to the width of the bones -- if you're a marrow hound that's a good thing -- under a blanket of marinara sauce. It is not a particularly complex version, and the spectral pallor of the marrow suggests the shanks might not have been seared before braising, but it nevertheless qualified as serious comfort food.

(To be totally honest, what I really wanted to do with the osso buco, having consumed the marrow, was to bundle up both those leftovers and the eggplant, take them home, fork-smoosh the meat and stuff it into eggplant rolls topped with the marinara. One of these days, I will.)

A list of what is often as many as a dozen specials is marked on a whiteboard just inside the door at the host station. "Specials" is an interesting term here, referring not so much to unusual offerings as to semi-regulars with non-standard prices; pretty much the entire list, except for vegetables, is printed on the carryout menus, with a note saying to check with the server for daily availability and market cost. These almost-standards include a fresh calf's liver and onions (it's sliced fairly thin, so be sure to emphasize that you prefer it medium or rare if you do); veal chop (perhaps not prime, not the sledgehammer size now common and subject to the same overcooking tendency, but tasty); pan-fried trout and sauteed soft-shell crabs; and sauteed shrimp and scallops.

There are usually a couple of whole grilled fish, most frequently rockfish, flounder and red snapper; these are personal weaknesses, dating to when I had a weekly date with grilled flounder at Bethesda's Pines of Rome, one of Medrano and his staff's former hangouts.

The wine list is gradually improving, although sadly, several of the more likable Italians are available only by the glass and half-bottle (a little stiff at the markup). Still, this is classic by-the-carafe territory, so the label-conscious will be looking elsewhere anyway.