Stick to the Pizza
A new Italian restaurant gets its pies right, but not much of anything else

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, June 28, 2009

1430 H St. NW

* 1/2 (out of four stars)
Sound Check: 78 decibels (Must speak with raised voice)

If all you did at Potenza was order pizza and eat it in a cozy booth with a view of the kitchen, my hunch is you'd leave raving about downtown Washington's animated new Italian restaurant, bakery and wine shop.

The pies typically are terrific. The man behind the baked dough is Stefano Ciociola, a Neapolitan whose first job was in his uncle's Italian restaurant near Stuttgart, Germany, and who says he wasn't allowed to move on until he mastered his assignment, pizza.

Three cheers for demanding relatives. In all my visits to Potenza, only once was the oval pizza, presented on a wooden board, less than a rousing success: crisp but also chewy, yeasty and properly singed from its time in the gas-fired ceramic oven. As is so often the case, the best pizza is one of the simplest, slathered with a faintly sweet tomato sauce, a suggestion of (homemade) mozzarella and fresh basil. The guy makes a mean breadstick, too.

If, on the other hand, you veered far from the aforementioned scenario, you might exit Potenza wondering what the buzz is about. Here's why: Spaghetti served in a strapping mound a la Buca di Beppo is bland, despite the presence of white anchovies and toasted bread crumbs in the mix. Octopus is chewy and dull. And the only reason to endure the dry roast chicken at this creation of Washington's Stir Food Group (think Zola) is for the entree's framework of lemony spinach and golden fingerling potatoes. One night, from the vantage point of my table in a clattery room whose walls were decorated with Italian plates, I felt as though I were eating in a food court. The roar of the crowd coming from the nearby lounge did nothing to erase the image.

From the outside looking in, the appeal is immediate. Enter Potenza from one direction, and you walk past the restaurant's busy bakery, visible behind glass. Stroll up from the other side, and the windows capture a handsome bar that's typically as packed as Metro Center during rush hour.

Inside, it's a different story: a throng of patrons milling around a lectern and hosts who resemble air-traffic controllers on the day before Thanksgiving. (They're busy amid barely controlled chaos.) Any plans to enjoy a quiet dinner away from the office are thwarted when you're led, as I was one dinner, to a table on a marble-paved corridor that looked into the bakery and a window display of seafood on ice. The problem? It felt as though we were eating in the hallway of a shopping center, albeit a ritzy one.

The servers talk up the arancini, deep-fried rice balls. We bite at the suggestion and are rewarded with what amounts to a mini-meal of meat, cheese and herbs in each crisp orb. Think small when ordering starters from this kitchen, which is helmed by executive chef Bryan Moscatello. I also like to begin a meal with little lamb meatballs, arranged in a pyramid atop a zesty red pepper sauce, or with golden salt cod fritters, more subtle than most but nicely set off with parsley aioli.

"We make all the pasta except for the orecchiette," a waiter pitches a group of us one night. That's no slam on the ear-shaped pasta, which comes with crumbly, fennel-flecked pork sausage, hits of garlic and broccoli rabe.

Potenza's spaghetti has welcome resistance. Deck it out with three big, solid and satisfying meatballs and a tangy tomato sauce, and you've got a comforting family supper, Italian style. One order of walnut-sprinkled gnocchi is enough for two, although the slick, spinach-tinted pillows, which dissolve quickly in the mouth, grow tiresome a few forks in. The gnocchi's gorgonzola sauce also is oddly restrained. Yet there is even less to like about the half-moon pasta, thick and less than tender, filled with baby-bland ricotta and spinach.

The open kitchen is a blur of cooks. They would do well to slow down and take a bit more time with their work. Eggplant soup is so vague about the featured vegetable, it ought to be labeled Parmesan soup, because that's the puree's dominant flavor. Shrimp mixed with tender squid and escarole would have been terrific, save for the salt shower that accompanied every bite one evening. Otherwise-respectable sliced Florentine steak has a friend in a thyme-flavored hash of potatoes, but a foe in a coffee-colored cover that could pass for barbecue sauce.

This list of slips stretches on. Potenza serves what amounts to a very good panzanella salad -- toasted bread, diced tomato and red onion -- but the base is actually a backdrop for some of that unfortunate octopus. I love the combination of sliced pears, blood oranges, doll-size polenta croutons and hazelnut vinaigrette, but not when the salad is soggy with too much dressing, as it was here. The pizzas are compelling, but they are not immune from over-baking on rare occasion (and a mushroom pizza deserves more than essence of fungi).

In its attempt to reach as broad an audience as possible, Potenza comes scarily close to channeling an Olive Garden.

A fish dish gives me hope. Moist halibut set on a tangy salad of diced eggplant proves both refreshing and delicious.

The restaurant's user-friendly wine list is another asset. The choices include abundant high-quality, good-value labels from Sicily, Puglia and the Marches, but there's also plenty for big spenders to mull over, particularly among the red wines. It's fun for a diner to see so many interesting wines by the glass (notice the rosé from Sicily) and smart of the owners to organize the selections from highest to lowest in price. The wine descriptions are actually useful, the food pairing suggestions helpful.

Desserts focus on the tried and true. Expect the cannoli to be crisp, the panna cotta to jiggle and the tiramisu to be everything you want from that classic confection. The gelato is ordinary eating, however, and the sugar-dusted Italian doughnuts can be heavy and dull.

The service at Potenza, whose pre-launch job fair brought out 2,000 applicants, is a bit like the food: It's mixed. Waiters might drop off your plate and disappear until you ask for the bill, or they might spend so much time at your table that you feel guilty for not asking them to pull up a chair and join you. Listening to the endless list of specials, and failing to catch most of them over the clamor, I'm reminded of a pet peeve: When there are more than three additions to the standing menu, I prefer them to be available in printed form.

With more care, Potenza could be a place you'd seek out for more than a handful of dishes. With some soundproofing, customers might not have to repeat every other sentence. (The only relief my ears got from the din was when I landed in a velvet-covered booth.) For the time being, I'm just a pie guy.

Open: lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m., Sunday noon to 10 p.m.; Sunday brunch 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. All major credit cards. No smoking. Metro: McPherson Square. Valet parking. Prices: appetizers $7 to $12, entrees $12 to $26.

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