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Kitchen Chameleon

Swiss-born and French-trained, George Vetsch cooks like a true Italian

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, March 6, 2005; Page W37

* * * Etrusco
1606 20th St. NW (near Q Street).
Open: for dinner Monday through Saturday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, MC, V. No smoking. Limited wheelchair access. Metro: Dupont Circle. Prices: appetizers $6.95 to $11, entrees $16.95 to $25. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $70 per person.

Since 1980, there have been four italian restaurants where Etrusco sits in Dupont Circle. The first, Vincenzo, was a top-notch seafood destination. The second, Trattoria Al Sole, offered a broader menu, lower prices and brown paper instead of linens on the tables. Sostanza followed in 1998, with a steak-heavy theme, only to be replaced two years later by Etrusco and a kitchen headed by veteran Washington chef Francesco Ricchi.

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The single constant in this long-running rotation has been owner Vince MacDonald, who says he's grown tired of keeping up with food trends and now wants to create no less than "an Italian restaurant like in Italy."

Never mind that the chef MacDonald recently brought on board to achieve that goal, George Vetsch, is a Swiss native who seems to have cooked in every fifth new restaurant in Washington over the past 24 years (including the late Sostanza). Since September, owner and chef have worked to come up with a menu at Etrusco that is very close in spirit to what a visitor to Florence or Rome might find on his plate.

I'm talking simple but sublime ingredients: whole fish rather than fillets, eggs from a cooperative in Pennsylvania, superior dried pasta from the city of Gragnano outside Naples, even celery that tastes richer than what you typically find at the grocery store. What is then done to those ingredients is . . . well, not a lot. And that's the hallmark of genuine Italian cooking. A tomato is served only when tomatoes are good; fish isn't buried under an ocean of sauce; and a diner can actually identify everything she's eating. (On the other hand, if the kitchen makes a mistake, it tends to be all the more apparent, because there's nothing for a glitch to hide behind.)

Straightforward is by no means boring at the "new" Etrusco. One day's antipasto platter could pass for a picnic assembled from the stalls of an Italian open-air market: delicate prosciutto, shaved fennel, a goat cheese-slathered crostino, a handful of olives and a soft-boiled egg tickled with a tomato-anchovy sauce. Salads reflect the season, so a midwinter visit found crimson blood oranges arranged with thin rings of red onion and olives. The salad had only a few elements, but each lent something important to the composition. Even grilled chicken is special when it's marinated in hot peppers and lemon juice, and grilled so that the bird remains succulent. Vetsch is French-trained, but this and other dishes at Etrusco show that he can be a chameleon, and that's a compliment.

Selections change frequently, which prompts a good news/bad news situation: The ultramoist swordfish with velvety sliced eggplant that I add to my list of favorites one night is nowhere to be found on the menu the next visit. Inevitably, though, there's something new and wonderful -- say, oregano-accented black grouper -- to grab my attention. Fortunately, a few memorable dishes seem to stick around, including a first course of tender shrimp and ivory squid threaded on skewers.

Pastas are mostly distinctive. Spaghetti retains a welcome texture, firm yet soft; with luck, you'll sample it tossed with mussels, garlic and parsley, or (even headier) punched up with bottarga, aka dried tuna roe. Penne gets a kick out of ground anchovies, olives and a scattering of toasted bread crumbs; the only thing that seems not authentically Italian about this entree is its U.S.-size portion, which is large enough for dinner tonight and tomorrow. While I initially ordered osso buco for the meat, the smooth, saffron-tinged risotto it came with proved just as lusty. The entree is grandly indulgent, from the soft, herb-perfumed veal shank, to rice that is slightly resistant to the bite, to a bright garnish of lemon peel and garlic.

"If someone has been making it for 200 years," MacDonald says of a great dish in the Italian repertoire, there's no need to rethink it. "But to make it as well, that's hard." He could be speaking of Vetsch's ribollita, a homely dish typically made with leftovers (ribollita means reboiled). Tasting the chef's rib-sticking mush of bread, beans and kale, you'd swear his mama was Italian. I've seen countless twists on saltimbocca, but the traditional partnering of thinly sliced veal with sage and prosciutto, which is how Etrusco serves it, makes a strong case for not tinkering with time-honored recipes. This dish, with its mellow but distinctive flavors, is divine.

The few miscues seem easily remedied. The wine list could use more than the 10 white wines I counted, as well as friendlier prices. And the chef needs to pay attention to how much salt he adds to his food: A side of Swiss chard and an entree of grilled shrimp were both marred by an overdose of it (the chard was also gritty, as if someone had forgotten to rinse it thoroughly).

Etrusco has three dining rooms just below ground level and a private space up a flight of stairs; the place where I always try to land is the atrium, to the left of the entrance. Formerly an outdoor patio but now enclosed, this long room is distinguished by a barrel ceiling and rows of potted plants that foster the illusion of being outdoors. Muted yellow walls and gentle lighting are easy on the eyes. Factor in service that is pleasant and unobtrusive, and the atmosphere is equally conducive to wooing a date or conducting business. And yet the prices (entrees hover around $20) encourage visits simply when the cupboard is bare or you're not in the mood to cook.

Etrusco closes as it opens, with desserts that don't need fireworks or molten chocolate centers to win over diners. Among the simple pleasures in recent weeks: diced apple in a homey pastry wrap, steamed chocolate custard that speaks more of chocolate than of sugar, a fan of winy poached pears accompanied by pear sorbet, and house-churned gelato.

Twenty-five years after he opened shop in Dupont Circle, MacDonald says his restaurant finally reflects what's he's been wanting to serve for so long: "This is what I like. This is what I think is good." It took some time to get there, but his patience, and ours, has paid off. At Etrusco these days, Italy is as close as the dish in front of you.

Ask Tom

"With the opening of the new Strathmore Hall" -- the $98 million music center on Rockville Pike -- Lorna Dodt of Annandale writes, "I'm wondering what kind of dining opportunities there are in the area." My closest pick is Addie's (11120 Rockville Pike; 301-881-0081), a brisk 15-minute walk from the new hall. Other worthy contenders for pre- or post-performance meals include Joe's Noodle House (1488-C Rockville Pike; 301-881-5518) and Mykonos Grill (121 Congressional Lane; 301-770-5999), both near the Twinbrook Metro station; and Black Market Bistro (4600 Waverly Ave., Garrett Park; 301-933-3000).

Got a dining question? Send your thoughts, wishes and, yes, even gripes to asktom@washpost.com or toAsk Tom, The Washington Post Magazine, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Please include daytime telephone number.

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