Pasta Paradiso

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, September 30, 2007

** 1/2 Locanda

633 Pennsylvania Ave. SE 202-547-0002 www.locandadc.com

Open: lunch Tuesday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30

p.m.; dinner Tuesday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 11 p.m.; brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Closed on Monday. All major credit cards. No smoking. Metro: Eastern Market. Street parking. Lunch and dinner prices: appetizers $4 to $15, entrees $14 to $25.

I can barely contain myself. The red wine I'm drinking puts me in a Sardinian frame of mind, and the ravioli I'm eating is filled with garlicky eggplant and ricotta cheese, sprinkled with chopped walnuts and drizzled with a simple butter sauce. "It's really good, isn't it?" a friend declares as she spies me on her way out the door at Locanda. It's only a Thursday, but every seat in the long, narrow room is taken.

Yes, much of the food at this new Italian retreat is quite good. But at least part of my enthusiasm for Locanda stems from its location on Capitol Hill. It's been many moons since a restaurant worth venturing across town for has opened there, despite a hungry, monied and adventurous audience.

It may take a course to get to the good stuff. The opening acts -- marinated olives, roasted almonds, a few salads and charcuterie -- make fine cocktail snacks but don't paint the restaurant as something special. Calamari is fried to an appetizing shade of bronze and comes with two vivid dips: salsa verde and anchovy-spiked mayonnaise. Nice enough. Pureed fava beans and lashings of pecorino cheese on toasted bread need more of their promised mint (and salt: The crostini are rather flat-tasting).

As it turns out, that eggplant ravioli is no only child. I've never met a pasta I didn't like at Locanda. The ravioli wrappers are thin and light, with just the right bite. While their stuffings change from night to night, every one I've tried has been very appealing. Earthy beets with a topping of pine nuts and butter is as charming as garlicky broccoli rabe brushed with anchovy butter. Also making a splash on the standing menu are tender mussels, clams and squid tossed with bands of pasta that look like more squid but are really supple starch -- calamari pasta. A parsley sauce stirred up with anchovies, lemon and capers gives the assembly color and sass. I'm not surprised to learn in a later telephone conversation with the chef that customers frequently ask for its recipe -- or for an extra cup for home consumption.

Wisely, chef Brian Barszcz, 35, doesn't overwhelm diners, or himself, with lots of entree choices. In addition to those pastas, there are rarely more than half a dozen main dishes, including specials. Chicken is my first choice. The chef brines the organic bird for up to three days in an herby water bath before throwing it on a hot grill, from which it emerges singed, juicy and bursting with savor. Schnitzel fans should gravitate to the pork chop, flattened as if beneath the wheels of a Humvee, and sheathed in a delicate golden batter of egg and crushed Japanese bread crumbs. A cool contrast to the meat is its fluffy salad of wild arugula and red onion slivers treated to a sour orange vinaigrette. The kitchen also grills whole fish -- branzino with enough meat on its bones to feed two -- and knows not to overdo it. The same cannot be said of the fish's sidekick, a toss of shaved fennel and Italian parsley that attacks the tongue with too much salt and odd heat (from hot peppers, it turns out). Seared tuna is perfectly respectable, its base of canellini beans less so. The beans are so undercooked, they almost crunch.

Owner Aykan Demiroglu -- whose face you might recognize from previous dining room stints at Sette Bello in Arlington and Le Paradou in Washington -- has hired a solid crew to look after his customers. His team is friendly, smart and eager for patrons to taste the best of chef Barszcz. When I overhear a diner ordering his hanger steak "medium-well" after the waitress tells him "the chef recommends medium-rare" -- and when he still insists on getting his entree thoroughly cooked after she explains that hanger steak is a thin and lean cut best cooked no more than medium -- the server feels compelled to be honest. "The chef can't really guarantee the integrity of the steak." (I secretly applauded her patient diplomacy, although the diner in question got his wish.) If you like beef, try the New York strip, with its welcome bit of fat and plenty of juice. It is served with a panzanella salad bright with summery-tasting tomatoes.

Seek out Demiroglu for wine advice. He seems tickled to introduce you to his favorites on the nicely composed list. Those might include the aforementioned Sardinian wine, from the Barrua vineyard, which suggests blackberries and herbs in its fragrance and ripe black fruit and licorice on the tongue -- a full-bodied wine that suits the menu's heartier fare. The owner's inventory, almost exclusively Italian, includes almost 30 wines by the glass and offers fine choices from all over Italy.

Look beyond a sea of heads and the muted lighting, and what you get is a minimalist dining room ending with a tiny bar. Scooped orange chairs give the space a warm and playful look, and recently installed sound-absorbing panels on the walls and ceiling are doing their job: Locanda, whose Italian name means "sophisticated eatery," is a much less noisy place than it was when it opened over the summer. It's also less attractive, unintentionally so, thanks to some new, and amateurish, paintings that prompt one stylista at my table to say, "It belongs in a coffee shop -- where the coffee isn't very good." Frankly, bare walls would be easier on the eyes.

The food is good distraction, though, and dessert is the equal of what precedes it. Liliana Dumas, who with her husband ran the late Trattoria Liliana on Connecticut Avenue, comes in each morning to sift, stir and bake her way into your affections. Her desserts have a nice, light quality that makes you feel less guilty eating them. Panna cotta flavored with Meyer lemon fairly breezes across the tongue, while the chocolate-hazelnut cake with a cloud of whipped cream goes easy on the sugar, so that a diner can appreciate the nuances of bitter Swiss chocolate, brown sugar and toasted, caramelized nuts. Of the gelati, the best I've tried is opal basil, a brilliant refresher. I'm a sucker for anything with pistachios, an affection that drew me most recently to a moist white cake spread with a layer of nougat mousse topped with pistachio mousse.

With the bill come more sweets: tiny cookies, maybe pine nut, almond or amaretto. Locanda is a good neighbor that knows how to make a nice impression -- in the glass, on the table, even as you're saying ciao.

To chat with Tom Sietsema online, go to washingtonpost.com on Wednesdays at 11 a.m.


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