The Casual Sophisticate: Tom Sietsema Reviews Posto

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, February 15, 2009

1515 14th St. NW

** (out of four stars)
Sound Check: 90 decibels (Extremely Loud)

Restaurateur Paolo Sacco envisioned Posto as a casual Italian hangout, and he installed a pizza oven to drill the point home. So why is it that this recent addition to Logan Circle frequently brings to mind Sacco's coolly formal Tosca downtown?

A good wine program prompts the comparison. There are plenty of interesting labels from which to choose, some from lesser-known wine regions such as Campagna and Puglia in Italy and Navarra and Terra Alta in Spain. Sacco tapped Kathy Morgan, his onetime sommelier at Tosca, to compose the list, which includes more than a dozen wines by the four- or six-ounce glass (the larger pours are better values).

The food can spark deja vu, too. The menu at Posto (Italian for "place" or "spot") was written in consultation with the top chef at Tosca, Massimo Fabbri, and it is executed by his former No. 2 there, Matteo Venini. Polenta with sausage and hanger steak with mushrooms await takers at Posto. But so, too, do such sophisticated dishes as agnolotti tinted black with squid ink and stuffed with octopus, squash and asparagus. A special on two visits, that $17 pasta course would have looked at home in the dining room of its chic sibling across town.

The address might be a familiar one. Posto takes the place of the late Viridian, next to Studio Theatre. (As at Tosca, Posto's dining room is partially hidden from outside view by gauzy curtains in its front windows, a detail that adds a dash of mystery to the restaurant.) As much as I liked the white and arty Viridian, created from a former car showroom, I appreciate what Sacco did to warm up what he inherited. Now, oak wraps around the fat pillars, and leather pads the banquettes. Newly installed light boxes in the front and back show off outsize grape clusters and Italian village scenes. A tall communal table separates the bar from the dining room and also serves as a great place to people-watch as you wait for a free table.

And wait you may. Posto doesn't take reservations, and the hordes eager to eat here sometimes bring to mind the Mall on Inauguration Day. If there's any doubt Logan Circle can use more restaurants, this newcomer disproves that notion.

The wood-fired pizza oven dominates one side of the room, tempting diners to add a pie to their order. Although the pizzas have gotten progressively better over the course of my visits, they still don't compare to Washington's elites. The problem lies not in the toppings, which include the expected trinity of tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil and the trendier combination of octopus, potato and olive, but in the crust. Sometimes it's missing salt, other times the base lacks proper browning or shows up stiff as cardboard. Ultimately, the crust fails my test: Unlike at, say, Comet Ping Pong, or 2 Amys on its best days, the bread is not good enough to eat on its own.

Venini grew up in Mandello del Lario, a village near Lake Como in northern Italy, in a family that owned a delicatessen. That's all the excuse I need to start my dinner with some sausage and cheese, despite the surplus of charcuterie and cheese boards around town. The chef knows quality, and Posto's servers know the drill, which runs to delicate prosciutto and fierce coppa, buttery burrata and sharp Parmesan, the genuine article.

If there's one course you shouldn't miss, it's pasta. Venini makes all but the spaghetti himself, and whatever shape of pasta you choose is filled or topped with something lovely and cooked as it should be, al dente. Spinach ravioli filled with three kinds of finely ground meat and brushed with thyme butter are delicate treats. Tender cavatelli show up with diced potatoes, sharp olives and a breezy pesto. As for that spaghetti, it's dressed with fresh-tasting seafood, artichokes and a tangy tomato sauce. "I love sophisticated stuff," the chef told me in a telephone conversation. His refined pastas bear that out.

His veal cheeks, on the other hand, are straight out of an Italian comfort food cookbook. Chunks of wine-swollen braised meat surround a dollop of rich whipped potatoes, with wilted spinach adding balance to the equation. Every bit as pleasing is the baby chicken, juicy and redolent of herbs. The entree is boned and served on a dark bed of soft kale, everything lightened with a drizzle of lemon butter sauce. It's a chicken you won't soon forget.

The same cannot be said of one night's special, rabbit rolled up with chicken liver pâté and Swiss chard, and splashed with red wine, which sounds better in the waiter's recitation than in the (bland) eating. The dish was also dry in parts.

Venini spent some of his time at Tosca as a pastry chef (Gorgonzola ice cream was among his contributions), and he plays that role here, too. Warm fruit cobbler is more American than Italian, but it's a welcome sight on a cold winter night. More fanciful is what a waiter describes as a "deconstructed tiramisu." The composition includes a shot of hot chocolate perked up with orange zest, a scoop of vanilla-infused mascarpone and whipped cream, espresso ice cream and a cookie fashioned from milk chocolate and that oh-so-Italian favorite: cornflakes, crushed. The plate is clever and luscious, very Tosca-esque.

On paper, Posto looks like a bargain, with entrees averaging $18. On the phone, Sacco describes his latest project as the kind of place where a diner can get a pizza and a glass of wine for $20. But the kitchen makes it easy for you to spend more than you anticipate once you add on some antipasti or a side dish or (oh, why not, we're having fun!) another glass of wine.

Posto is young and imperfect. Dishes can go AWOL, and the roar of the crowd inhibits easy conversation. But if it's a delicious pasta or a seductive scene you're seeking, this is "the spot" to be.

Open: dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. American Express, MasterCard, Visa. No smoking. Metro: U Street-Cardozo. Parking lot. Prices: appetizers $6 to $12, entrees $15 to $22.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company