Appetites of the Rich
5471 Wisconsin Ave., Chevy Chase 301-986-8785 www.famosorestaurant.com
Open: lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; dinner Sunday through Wednesday 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., Thursday, Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. No smoking. Metro: Friendship Heights. Validated parking for dinner. Prices: dinner appetizers $10 to $19, entrees $17 to $43. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $90 per person.
When the neighbors are named Bulgari, Cartier, Dior, Tiffany and Vuitton, the desire to fit in with the crowd must be enormous. So the arrival of a restaurant in the posh Collection at Chevy Chase -- conjure Rodeo Drive with Maryland license plates -- finds a red carpet in front of its door and a slender banner running down its facade and trumpeting Famoso.
That's Italian for "famous."
It takes time to become well-known, and fame has a flip side: notoriety. Famoso is just 3 1/2 months old, but the second-story restaurant on the back side of a rich shopping strip has more or less established itself as a worthy (if expensive) addition to its Zip code.
Even if it's your first visit, Famoso can make you feel like a regular. Part of the credit goes to the welcoming hostess at the lectern, and part of it goes to maitre d' Ralph Fredericks, a veteran of Coeur de Lion in the Henley Park Hotel and now a reassuring presence here. Fredericks flirts. He jokes. He watches over the place as if he owned it. Not all of the servers are memorable, but enough of them are (and that's saying something in this market, where even big deal restaurants go begging, pleading for two good legs and some brains). The best of the lot at Famoso are attentive, helpful and efficient; the lesser talents wonder, "Who gets the veal?"
You will not find it necessary to mime your way through dinner. The music stays in the background, where it belongs, and even on a busy Saturday night, you can hear the person across from you praise the thin-lipped stemware that sparkles on every table top. The interior is kind to the eyes, too. The cozy bar is a class act in curved granite and recessed lighting -- the perfect retreat for an after-work cocktail. The dining room follows suit. Buffed Brazilian hardwood floors and amber overhead lights balance Famoso's white walls and modern art. The look is civilized and, occasionally, happily old-fashioned, as when a cart rolls up to your table to deliver pasta that is then apportioned for two. Or when a big wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano -- the real deal -- is splashed with alcohol, ignited and used as a "pan" to finish an order of risotto. If you like a bit of theater with your meal, this restaurant delivers.
Your first bite of food probably won't result in any epiphanies. Famoso's appetizers tend to be routine. My evidence includes a pleasant skewer of shrimp and squid bedded on thick rounds of sauteed potato, and nicely fried squid and julienned vegetables that are strewn on two fistfuls of salad (which quickly warm) and paired with a mild-mannered tomato sauce for dipping. Wake me up when it's over. And based on my trawling, fish dishes tend to be lesser catches. Dominos of tuna come with a vague green crust and a "sweet and sour" rataouille that doesn't merit either adjective, while cod is clumsily blackened with olives and displayed against boring wild rice.
Pasta could be Famoso's ticket to acclaim. I've never tried one that wasn't something I wanted to order again. For openers, there's a humble but restorative soup with squiggles of bread dumplings bobbing in a clear broth enriched with a dusting of Parmesan and fried sage. Deeper into the menu are hand-made strozzapreti ("strangle the priest") ladled with a thick sauce of tomato, onion and ground pork sausage nicely set off with crisp folds of prosciutto that prompt a nice crunch here and there. More elegant is spaghetti stained black with squid ink and garnished with a few bites of lobster and tiny tomatoes; the thin noodles are firm but yielding, and a touch of brandy sweetens the deal. Yet the grandest of the starches is the risotto accessorized with pheasant ragu and a dusting of black truffle. The blue flames, the aroma of melting cheese and the result -- unabashed pleasure in every bite -- is worth the price ($30).
So is the "Florentine style" steak, served as scarlet slices, some clinging to their bone (take your pick from a 16-ounce T-bone or a 24-ounce porterhouse). The meat has that fabulous flavor you get when it's properly seasoned and doesn't spend much time on the grill. There's sufficient fat to carry the flavor and crunchy golden roasted potatoes to make a feast of the centerpiece. The beef doesn't quite place a diner in Florence, but it sure makes a delicious destination on the menu.
The cloak-and-dagger strategy I follow when I review restaurants doesn't allow me to poke my head into kitchens to see who's cooking. (Chef Gabriele Paganelli, a native of Italy's Emilia-Romagna region who comes by way of Toronto, gets executive chef credit, and he's assisted by Romina Lugaresi.) I mention this only because one visit was vastly different from the others, starting with a study in beige and boredom -- the menu calls the thick dip cannellini bean soup -- and continuing with muted veal foisted on a mountain of salad greens and out-of-season tomatoes, and a chicken breast promising a stuffing of truffle paste and a crust of potato but yielding a blank center and an old-tasting cover of starch. The latter entree reminded a friend of "hotel banquet chicken"; I told him most hotels could do better. Fortunately, the bird came with a pleasant, apple-sweetened red cabbage to fill up on. Unfortunately, no one asked why we left so much food on our plates. We left that night without trying dessert; even so, the bill came to $80 a disappointed diner.
That brings up the wine list, which is expensive: Of the pours by the glass, all but one sell for two digits. The regional organization is welcome, but it also highlights how little wine is being offered from such exciting areas in Italy as Campania, Sicily and Sardinia. And why are so many wines coming from the same producer, which gives the list the appearance of having been written by a distributor? The American wines are mere afterthoughts.
The kitchen makes a pleasant tiramisu, which it serves in a fluted glass with a small cup made from chocolate and filled with kahlua for pouring over the main attraction. There are also bite-size biscotti offered with ice cream flavored with vin santo, the traditional dunking partner to those crisp cookies. "Ice cream cake" is a big shard of frozen meringue and whipped cream pebbled with candied fruit and roasted pistachios and hazelnuts; its plate is streaked with chocolate and pistachio sauces and filled out with more nuts. More whimsical than delicious, the confection looks like a snow fort erected by Hershey.
Famoso? Not yet, and not without some caveats. But the restaurant deserves more than 15 minutes in the spotlight if only for some very good plates served in a comfortable environment and the occasional display of fireworks.
To chat with Tom Sietsema online, go to washingtonpost.com on Wednesdays at 11 a.m.