By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, March 15, 2009
* 1/2 (out of four stars)
Sound Check: 73 decibels (Must speak with raised voice)
Restaurants can be teases.
Assaggi Mozzarella Bar and I met shortly after it opened in the old Centro spot in Bethesda last spring. The newcomer made a good first impression, even though it made its debut without its much-hyped cheese bar, parts of which had been delayed. I admired the restaurant's collection of hand-painted plates on the wall opposite the friendly bar, and it was entertaining to watch the cooks go about making everyone's meals in a showy, semicircular open kitchen in the back.
Chef Domenico Cornacchia, a veteran of three area restaurants including Cafe Milano in Georgetown, looked happy to be on display. I appreciated his pasta tossed with squid, his veal sheathed with prosciutto.
Based on that early encounter, I checked back with Assaggi for lunch in the fall. That time, I got the cold shoulder from the host, who seemed more interested in spending time at the computer than attending to his customers, and from a waiter who was everywhere but at my table when I needed something. Some of the food tasted warmed-over, and a chickpea soup was in dire need of seasoning. On the other hand, a plate of simple trout with crisp green beans and a pillowy roll enclosing shaved lamb sustained my curiosity. So did discerning friends and Bethesda residents who filed occasional flattering reports with me.
The chef could drop Mozzarella from the title of his restaurant, and I wouldn't miss it. The cheese presentation here is slapdash: big pucks of it served with "condiments" that don't necessarily enhance the eating or play supporting roles. The green tomato jam is cloying, for instance, and clumps of grilled zucchini and roasted peppers come off more like side dishes than garnishes. And if you're going to call yourself a cheese bar, shouldn't you offer more than a handful of choices?
A more satisfying start comes by way of the lightly breaded, gently fried calamari and zucchini, or the sweetbreads arranged with a crown of fried artichokes. The kitchen tosses a nice salad, too. The sleeper of the bunch mirrors the colors of the Italian flag with layers of endive, radicchio and arugula. Riding astride the fluffy mound is a pane of crisp bread decorated with glistening white anchovies. Tying everything together is a bagna cauda dressing, bold and delicious, based on the Piedmontese dip of anchovy, garlic, walnuts and olive oil.
If I hadn't been compelled to taste the range of the menu, I would've alternated between ordering Cornacchia's chicken and his steak as my main course during my visits. The "two way chicken cacciatora" finds a red-wine-braised leg and roasted breast sharing their plate with sweet chunks of carrot and potato cubes (next to the leg) and spinach (alongside the breast). Homey and hearty, the dish tastes as if it had been plucked from some Italian grandmother's Sunday table. The rib-eye steak sported a nice crust and intense flavor, thanks to its zesty marinade of porcini and chili powders. Slices of the pink and juicy beef got delicious backup from garlicky broccoli rabe and stewed cannellini beans.
Pastas are mixed propositions. Buckwheat pappardelle with kale and potatoes comes in a strapping portion that only underscores its stodginess. Risotto Milanese looks the part, with threads of saffron to give the grains of rice a golden hue, but the dish is otherwise timidly seasoned. I'd return for the big ravioli stuffed with finely ground veal cheeks, however, which get a nice assist from a glossy sauce and matchsticks of chives scattered across the surface. (I'd return as well for Assaggi's happy hour, when the bar pours sparkling $6 Bellinis.)
Order the fish baked in salt and be prepared to have all eyes on your table when the waiter shows up with it. The entree arrives in a sarcophagus of bread to keep the fish (in my case, dorade) moist. Like a surgeon, the server methodically removes layers and cake-size hunks of the soft crust until he gets to the good stuff.
"What did you order?" a woman next to us asks, rising from her seat to get a better look.
"What's he doing?" I overhear another stranger ask nearby. Released from its thick cover, the dorade is transferred to a plate and offered with glossy peppers. It's a fine piece of fish.
When a plate of french fries that duplicate something from a food factory appears, a vocal diner at my table (and a regular here) tells the server, "You can do better than that." She is right. The kitchen can do better. What returns to us bears no relation to the first plate of french fries. The replacements are hand-cut and taste of potato.
Her words sprang to mind during a subsequent dinner. With a few changes, Assaggi could be an easier place to spend a few hours. Oh, the golden banquettes are plenty comfortable, and the band of mirrors positioned at eye level ensures that everyone gets a view of the room, even those facing the wall. The votive-glowing chandeliers add flair as well. But the tables are packed in so tightly, I feel the heat of my neighbor's food. Soft lighting is flattering, but Assaggi's is so low as to make the menu difficult to read.
Liliana Dumas, a native of Liguria, is making the desserts for Assaggi. Her output will be familiar to anyone who misses what she baked so well at Locanda on Capitol Hill and, before that, at the late Trattoria Liliana on Connecticut Avenue. Dumas's Italian doughnuts, finger-long and piping hot, look like churros and invite competition at the table as everyone tries to cool them down in the ramekin of zabaglione with which the ridged fritters are served. Even better are her cakes, which are impossibly moist and light. A current favorite finds lemon- and strawberry-flavored whipped cream between layers of white cake, but the pistachio confection is also a winner.
Assaggi can be a charmer and a disappointment, sometimes at the same meal. It's a little unpredictable for my taste, coming on strong one time, failing to please on another date. To get to the best of it, consider bypassing the cheese, ordering fish or meat, saving space for dessert -- and showing up with some patience.
Open: lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; dinner Sunday through Thursday 4 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4 to 11 p.m.; brunch Saturday and Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. All major credit cards. No smoking. Metro: Bethesda. Valet parking at dinner. Prices: lunch appetizers $7 to $13, lunch entrees $9 to $17; dinner appetizers $8 to $17, dinner entrees $15 to $29.