Bravo for Bebo
** 1/2 Bebo Trattoria da Roberto Donna
2250-B Crystal Drive, Arlington 703-412-5076 www.robertodonna.com
Open: for lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; for dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; Sunday brunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Smoking at the bar. Metro: Crystal City. Complimentary garage parking after 4 p.m. Dinner prices: appetizers $5 to $10, entrees $10 to $18. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $60 per person.
Galileo, downtown Washington's best-known Italian restaurant, could be, by turns, a frustrating and fabulous experience. The name inspired disdain or delight, depending on who you are and where you ate in the place, which started in 1991 as a single handwritten menu on 21st Street NW but evolved into a destination that also offered pizzas at the bar, carryout paninis, a casual osteria and Laboratorio, a luxe space in which chef Roberto Donna personally prepared a dozen-course, star-filled dinner from an exhibition kitchen.
When I returned to Washington after years of living on the West Coast late in the last century, Galileo was one of the first restaurants I wanted to catch up with. Our reunion was less than joyous. I remember sitting at a too-small table in an unglamorous dining room and having a tombstone-size wine menu thrown at me. The service was so indifferent, it didn't matter what was on my plate.
Since then, I've eaten at Galileo, or one of its adjoining venues, at least 20 times. What I learned was that the best way to savor Donna's talent was to eat cheaply or grandly. There was a reason for the lines that stretched the length of the restaurant whenever the chef celebrated "grill days" with sandwiches made with house-baked ciabatta and the likes of grilled chicken and roasted pork shoulder. For about what you'd pay to see a movie, you got a trip to Italy between two slices of bread. And anyone fortunate enough to find himself in the intimate Laboratorio, with Donna cooking and chatting within feet of his table, knew he was eating some of the finest Italian food on the East Coast.
Notice the past tense? Unless you've been on a mission to Mars, you know that Galileo is closed as the building it occupied undergoes a top-to-bottom renovation. In the meantime, Donna and company have taken their recipes to the space vacated by the Mexican-themed Oyamel in Northern Virginia. Wisely, Bebo Trattoria's chef has opted not to try to re-create Galileo but to concentrate on serving the simple Italian food he was raised on. The name of the new venture underscores the informal theme and reveals Donna's childhood nickname: Bebo.
Bravo! I want to cry when I twirl my fork around flat spaghetti in an enormous bowl scattered with clams. The pasta is cooked just as it should be -- there's some fight in the starch -- and the seafood is sweet with the flavor of the sea. A sprinkle of chopped parsley and some soft cloves of garlic in the swirl only add to this role model. This is a kitchen that also knows from risotto; the night I ordered it, the creamy-firm grains of carnaroli rice, grown in the chef's native Piemonte and swollen with homemade chicken stock, were joined by diced squash and bites of meat. Pink slices of impressive beef, hidden beneath a lawn of arugula and bordered with rosemary-scented fried potatoes, have the carnivores at my table fighting for custody. But even a simple piece of swordfish stands out, thanks to deft grilling and seasoning: A sprinkle of capers, a spritz of lemon juice and fresh oregano are all the sauce you need when the fish is good-quality.
You can point your finger anywhere on the menu, augmented with a dozen daily specials, and come up with a success story. Donna, 45, says he opened Bebo with the intention of serving food he missed, "stuff I would want to find" on an Italian menu. That includes offal and innards -- fried pigs' feet, calf's brain, sweetbreads -- that have proved to be strong sellers (and expose Washingtonians as more adventurous than we're sometimes given credit for). Good news for pampered palates: Bebo recently instituted occasional weekend "tasting dinners," scaled-back feasts modeled on what was offered in Laboratorio.
The sleeper on the standing script is rabbit, chopped into bite-size pieces, marinated in an herbed batter and fried so that the skin is crisp and the meat retains its juices. The entree is served as a golden heap with fried vegetables (artichokes in season, zucchini and red onions right now) and accompanied by an orange-brightened mayonnaise. The dip isn't traditional Italian, but who cares? It makes a nice match.
When the kitchen is firing on all cylinders (Donna is assisted by chef de cuisine Amy Brandwein, a graduate of L'Academie de Cuisine), the result is unabashed pleasure. Nowhere else is the vitello tonnato so luscious, the grilled octopus so tender and flavorful with fruity olive oil, the sausage platter so decadent (love that cured lard, which looks like albino bacon strips and tastes like pork heaven). And even during its lesser moments -- the lamb steak is a snooze -- the cooking is better than about three-quarters of the Italian restaurants that blanket the landscape like so much powdered Parmesan cheese.
Except at Laboratorio, Galileo was never known for top-shelf service. Unfortunately, that trend continues at Bebo. No sooner did the trattoria open than I heard from dozens of readers who applauded much of the cooking and panned the inattention to detail in the dining room. Too slow, some clucked. Too sloppy, others groused. I experienced some of the same one night when I dismissed a bottle of red wine that had obviously turned. (It smelled of wet cardboard and dank basement.) I invited the server to sniff the wine he had just poured for me to sample, to see for himself. He did so. "Bad, huh?" I asked. "A lee-tle," he responded. Then he poured some more wine, told me to give it some time in the glass -- and left the table, even though my companions had no vino and mine was undrinkable. That was my only unhappy encounter with liquids, thanks to sommelier Matteo Graziani's carefully crafted wine list, which includes finds from the regions of Puglia and Sicily at all price ranges.