An old hand's popular new spot: Palio struggles to handle avid patrons

Scallops come wrapped in pancetta.
Scallops come wrapped in pancetta. (Stacy Zarin Goldberg)
By Candy Sagon
Sunday, May 16, 2010

Palio of Leesburg
2 W. Market St., Leesburg

** (out of four stars; Good)
Sound check: 81 decibels/Extremely loud.

One quick way to test the mettle of a restaurant staff is to see what happens when a key employee fails to show up for work. Do things rapidly cascade into disaster? Or can the rest of the staff shift into overdrive and keep customers reasonably happy?

At Palio, a new Italian restaurant in a two-story historic building in downtown Leesburg, such a test occurred on a recent Saturday night when the bartender was a no-show. That meant no one to pour drinks and serve food for the 24 seats in the cozy first-floor bar area on a night when the upstairs dining staff was already stretched thin with several large parties. An upstairs waiter was eventually recruited to handle the bar food, but there was still no one to pour wine or mix cocktails.

Do you have any idea how cranky a crowd can get when denied alcohol?

Fortunately, owner-manager Antonio Pino has good friends living nearby. One of them, called at home, quickly came over and began doing the only thing he could do in the situation: Pour lots of wine.

The crabby crowd, many kept waiting for an hour despite reservations, mellowed out with generous servings of Chianti. And once diners were upstairs, Joe Cicala's polished menu -- this is the Italy-trained Cicala's first job as executive chef -- came close to making up for the long wait. It's hard to remain grumpy as you munch a lovely salad of peppery arugula, sweet pear and aged Parmesan, followed by perfectly seared scallops wrapped in smoky pancetta, and house-made fennel sausage lounging on a cushion of buttery polenta. By the time I got my big bowl of mussels and clams in a spicy white wine broth, I couldn't remember what I had been so irritated about.

It also helped that Pino made the rounds, apologizing and thanking everyone for their patience. A courtly, well-mannered host, he exudes old-school hospitality and makes an effort to chat warmly with every customer.

Still, I was surprised that someone with Pino's experience -- he has helped run Zeffirelli in Herndon and Primi Piatti in the District -- seems to be struggling at times with his restaurant's overnight popularity. Open just six months, Palio is consistently jammed on Saturday nights, and customers often are loath to leave. Even 30 minutes past our 6:30 p.m. reservation, Pino acknowledged that the party ahead of us was lingering at the table.

Not that I could blame them for wanting to linger. The dining room, with its warm Tuscan gold and sienna walls, and tenor Andrea Bocelli on the sound system, is welcoming. The unusual horse paintings (the restaurant is named after a famous Italian horse race) are intriguing. And the waiters are gracious and charming.

On that chaotic Saturday night, we were so hungry when we finally sat down that we probably would have eaten the tablecloth if the waiter hadn't quickly brought slices of chewy, crusty bread with tiny dishes of bruschetta toppings and olive oil. After the appetizers, the four of us shared two pasta dishes: eggplant-filled ravioli with smoked mozzarella that was too salty to finish; and delicate, folded crepes filled with sheep's-milk ricotta in a light tomato sauce that we all loved.

From there it was on to the meat course. The grilled pork chop, with cippolini onions and borlotti bean puree, also suffered from too much salt, as well as too much time on the stove. It was overcooked, as was the veal scaloppini with mushrooms and spinach in a Marsala wine reduction. Much more satisfying was the juicy roast chicken with broccolini.

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