Italian Alps-Inspired Villa Mozart Is Music to One's Mouth

By Nancy Lewis
Thursday, January 24, 2008

Villa Mozart restaurant offers a rare opportunity to experience the food of Italy's Alto Adige region, near the Austrian border, reinterpreted by Andrea Pace, who started his culinary career at the famous Villa Mozart resort in the ancient town of Merano.

Merano, outside Bolzano and not far from the main mountain pass into Austria, exists in a special, almost tropical micro-climate, created by the sheltering Alps. At Villa Mozart in downtown Fairfax, Pace parrots that unique atmosphere with dishes that reflect the cuisine of the Italian mountains, but with a light touch.

Consider his pappardelle with venison ragout. Stewed venison is a staple of far northern Italy. The meat is usually cooked much like an American pot roast or beef stew -- until it is falling apart -- and then paired with sturdy noodles. You'll find the dish at posh ski villages and tiny inns along the Great Dolomite Road through the Italian Alps.

Pace's version features homemade pappardelle (wide ribbon pasta) with a ragout that combines wild mushrooms and tender nuggets of venison loin. It's a lighter version of the hearty Italian mountain fare but lacks nothing of its earthiness.

Pace has been in the Washington culinary scene for seven years, first as the executive chef of Cafe Milano in Georgetown, then at Il Cigno in Reston and for 3 1/2 years at Fiore di Luna in Great Falls. Villa Mozart, which opened in October, is the first restaurant he has owned, and it's a small, personal space. The vestibule is super-heated, to knock the chill off diners who have made the short walk from the back parking lot. An etched glass door leads to a small hall, with a private dining room to the right and the main dining room to the left.

The decor is spare but quietly elegant, with modern leather chairs surrounding white-clothed tables. Black-and-white photos hang on pale green walls, but unfortunately the overhead spotlights miss most of the photos. And the only piece of furniture that lends personality to the space, an elegant sideboard, is at the rear of the room, opposite the wine storage rack.

It's possible to carry on a conversation without raising your voice, though there are no curtains or carpeting. The view out the windows of Villa Mozart may not mirror the stunning Italian landscape, but concentrate on the food and you can forget you are in the heart of suburban sprawl. All the dishes are elegantly presented on plain white china, which allows the food to be the center of attention. Service is mostly deft, and there is a small wine list with some lesser-known jewels, such as a Cesanese, a varietal from a grape grown in the middle portion of Italy.

The menu, which changes often as Pace rotates seasonal ingredients, is heavily tilted toward appetizers and pasta dishes, with a half-dozen main courses, limited in these winter months to beef, lamb, venison and a fish special. Among the appetizers are a host of Italian favorites: sweet prosciutto di Parma, slightly thicker than the usual paper-thin slices; deep, rosy petals of the air-dried beef (bresaolo); beef and venison renditions of carpaccio (thinly sliced raw meat); buffalo mozzarella salad; and hearts of lettuce. For something more unusual, try the Morbidelle, soft, savory ricotta dumplings each containing slices of black truffle and topped with a shower of wild mushrooms and truffle slices.

Pace said his inspiration for the dish came from a southern Italian dessert of sweet ricotta dumplings.

Pasta dishes are the stars of the menu, especially the white polenta-filled ravioli. The polenta (made from corn meal) is so fine that there is no graininess to the filling, just the creamy texture of sottocenere cheese, a raw-milk cheese that is flavored with and washed in truffles. The pasta is thin and delicate, and the dish is finished with a reduced port-wine sauce. The ravioli are rich-tasting and wonderful.

Pace pays the same attention to Yukon Gold potato gnocchi, light but tasting of potato, nestled in a tomato sauce that doesn't overwhelm the delicate flavor of the dumplings.

Linguine with shrimp and langoustine may sound like something you have had before, but Pace makes it beautiful, with the langoustine resting on a tangle of linguine and shrimp in a gentle brandy and cherry-tomato sauce.

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