Tom Sietsema: Just say ‘No, grazie’ to La Tagliatella

La Tagliatella in Arlington makes a strong case for hazard pay for restaurant critics. The Italian concept, an unfortunate import from Europe that plays up 400 combinations of pasta and sauce, is so distasteful on so many different levels, I was tempted to dismiss it after just one visit. I changed my mind when I considered its prime corner real estate in Clarendon and the Poland-based chain’s intention to expand elsewhere in the United States.

Someone needs to put a stop to this threat to our nation.

The gold-and-red design does its best to disarm you. The combination of weighty chandeliers, chianti-colored banquettes and acres of Brazilian cherry wood is the Old World conjured by Las Vegas.

The slick menus with their commercial-grade food shots suggest the sort of reading you might find on the desk of a budget hotel or the seat pocket of an airplane. The photos are your first clue that dinner might not be very starry. A skewered stack of eggplant, tomatoes and mozzarella, “Insalata Torre di Pisa,”takes its name from that leaning tower in Pisa. (The dishes are all labeled in Italian, but that doesn’t make anything autentico.) Filet mignon sports a blinding sheen, while the calzone stuffed with three cheeses and fried eggplant does a great impression of a mummy, save for its tomato garnish.

The prose follows the example of the pictures, which include photos of spaghetti, linguine and fusilli among the nearly 20 pasta shapes. Diners are told in a printed introduction that dishes are made “with extra virgin olive oil in all recipes!” Online, the chain further boasts of the pedigree of its ingredients, including “real grilled vegetables” on that tilting tower of salad.

Get me rewrite!

Is anyone else tired of servers telling you that your food is meant to be shared? Don’t get me wrong. I like tapas and mezze and dim sum, eaten in the company of kindred souls, as much as the next gullet. But those are all small plates, not portions better suited to a buffet than a single appetite. At a recent lunch at La Tagliatella, a manager and a waiter pushed an extra table into mine to support the super-sized plates and bowls that only two of us had ordered.

Among the classics I don’t recognize at La Tagliatella is the Caesar salad. Note to kitchen: Frisee, tomatoes and oil-drenched croutons have no place in the toss. Like all the salads here, the Caesar comes with a choice of six dressings, including a honey and pistachio vinaigrette that goes down like melted baklava and tastes even more out of place when Dean Martin is belting out “Volare” in the background.

Ask for the minestrone (but you shouldn’t), and a verbal yield sign follows. “Our minestrone isn’t typical,” a waiter says, then goes on to describe how the kitchen purees its vegetables and adds cream. The menu tells us the soup is made with leeks, potatoes, turnips, carrots, zucchini and so on, but all I register are peas and ... what the heck are croutons doing here?

Think simple when ordering. Islands of mozzarella slices interspersed with anchovies on a sea of crushed tomatoes is a strapping satisfaction, compared to the excessively busy salad of mixed greens, fried goat cheese, corn, pistachios, pine nuts and cloying caramelized tomatoes that remind you they’re a fruit.

Too bad if you don’t eat cream or pork products, because 15 of the 19 sauce choices include one or the other — sometimes both. Risotto alla Rustica made with tomatoes, black olives and bacon brings to mind a soupier version of the Spanish rice I endured in my grade-school cafeteria. Nutmeg-heavy lasagna verde is a bubbling barge of noodles layered with spinach and zucchini — and raisins? — that is fair for a bite but doesn’t compel you to keep digging. Tagliatelle is souped up with a cream sauce including bits of foie gras that is rich but one-note. The steaming pastas arrive with industrial-size spoons and forks that look like short rakes across their big bowls.

To their credit, the cooks know when to pluck their noodles from hot water. Unfortunately, the pastas tilt toward the salty side.

La Tagliatella’s paper-thin pizzas look like wavy blond sails and taste like saltines. Shrimp on a cracker, anyone? That’s what I thought when I sliced into the “Di Mare” pizza with tomato, mozzarella and nice-enough seafood. As with the pasta sauces, the pizza toppings (there are nearly 20) are strangely ham-heavy. An exception is the “Tomino,” a gluey mat of the cheese of the same name scattered with chopped nuts and caramelized apples that are so sweet they call for whipped cream more than the lashings of pecorino they actually get.

Wan slices of gray pork tenderloin do not encourage a detour to the meatier corner of the menu.

“This is like Olive Garden,” I say to a friend who is not putting a dent in a mound of black ravioli under a blanket of minced salmon, tomatoes and cream. “When’s the last time you were at Olive Garden?” he asked. Fair point; I couldn’t recall. Soon after, I headed to the Falls Church outpost of the popular chain owned by Darden Restaurants to do some comparison grazing — and found myself eating my words. Among other dishes, the minestrone at Olive Garden, thick with identifiable vegetables and robust in flavor, is superior to the pallid puree at La Tagliatella.

By now, it should come as no surprise that dessert is a minefield best avoided. Lemon sorbet is a white scoop of pure pucker, not the least bit refreshing, while tiramisu translates as coffee-flavored liquid custard in need of a straw more than a spoon or fork. Surely the ’80s wants its dessert back. Pineapple soup appears to be thickened with cornstarch. A scoop of waxy coconut sorbet in the center of the bowl fails to make up for the yellow lake of disappointment.

The wines by the glass will remind you of the stuff you left behind in college, but the drinks here are generous and strong. Cocktails, it turns out, are one way to get through a meal at La Tagliatella, a brand unleashed on America last year with two branches in Atlanta, poor thing.

I give the hosts credit for their smiles and the servers a salute for their speed. The setting, once home to Restaurant 3, is as over-the-top as Liberace, but some diners might see the design as a welcome change from all the reclaimed wood and bare tables on the scene.

La Tagliatella has its eye on more area branches.

Germantown, Gaithersburg and Shirlington, you have my condolences.

Other restaurants that have received ”poor” ratings from Tom include Lauriol Plaza, Mussel Bar and the now closed Buddha Bar.

½ star

(Poor)
La Tagliatella

2950 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington. 571-257-4600. latagliatella.us.

OPEN:
11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

METRO: Clarendon.

PRICES: Appetizers $4.50 to $17, main courses $14 to $30.

SOUND CHECK: 84 decibels/Extremely loud.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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