Tom Sietsema on Girasole: A good spot to stop in Virginia's hunt country for good Italian

Fritto Misto
Fritto Misto (Scott Suchman)
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, October 3, 2010

For the past five years, and always on my way to other restaurants, I've been driving past Girasole in Virginia's hunt country. Such a handsome spread, I thought as my eyes took in a two-story dwelling in the tiny Fauquier County town of The Plains. Such happy-looking faces leaving the place, I mentally noted. Such rustic background music, I observed at least once, when a train rumbled by mere yards from the setting, near where I was idling.

Then off I'd go, to someplace I figured was more important.

Prompted by a fan of the Italian restaurant, I made Girasole my destination rather than my drive-by this summer. What I found was a place that reflects the family that cares for it, and breads, pastas and desserts with a personal touch (most are made in-house).

The menu doesn't immediately register as anything special. White bean soup, linguine with clams and veal scalloppine aren't exactly a siren call to book a table in the countryside. Girasole's chef and owner, Louis Patierno, acknowledges as much when he says the choices are mostly "the generic things people expect to see" at an Italian restaurant.

They might sound simple on paper, but some of those dishes are alluring. Little did I know, for instance, that one of the best fritto mistos in recent memory is about 60 minutes from downtown Washington, at a place that takes its name from the Italian word for sunflower. Even a half-order of the entree delivers enough lightly fried scallops, shrimp, mussels and zucchini for two to share. Just squeeze on some lemon juice, and you have yourself a golden feast. Proof that not all fried mozzarella is created equal is Girasole's lightly breaded appetizer, which breaks open to a rush of white lava. Fried parsley leaves and anchovy butter are just the jolts to kick-start the dish. Patierno smokes his own local trout, presented with minced onions and briny capers, and although it's billed as a first course, it could stand in as a light (and winning) entree. If you trawled for your meal only from the fish and seafood choices, you could be happy; clams with linguine are pleasantly garlicky and zippy with red pepper flakes, while baby octopus is bright with lemon juice and heartier with chickpeas. But thin slices of sauteed veal, fragrant with sage and served on a nest of tasty spinach, provide a delicious reason to go aground. (Too bad there's but a single dauphine potato gracing the entree.)

That said, what also endears Girasole to me is its many specials, which are described by the servers. Amazingly, none of the staff reads off notes -- no small feat when there typically are a dozen specials to talk up.

Veering from the standing script might reward diners with floppy ravioli stuffed with chunks of tender lamb, cloaked in a dusky yellow curry sauce and sprinkled with golden raisins. Or tube-shaped, tomato-sauced cannelloni hiding soft ground veal in their centers. If trout is on the spoken menu, go fish. You might get lucky, as I did recently, with a skin-on sauteed trout splayed on its plate with crisp green beans and a bite of boiled potato. A dusting of crushed pistachios and splashes of lemon-butter sauce embellish the fish.

The food at Girasole is not, for the most part, the sort that brings conversation to a halt. (A mitt-size lamb shank, for instance, was outclassed by its accompanying pappardelle.) Yet most of it quietly impresses. Patierno has been cooking for about 40 of his 58 years, most notably at the late Tiberio in Washington, which food lovers of a certain vintage might remember as a destination back in the 1980s. The chef also put in time at the long-ago Le Pavillon and La Bagatelle, kitchen duty that reveals itself most noticeably on his impressive dessert tray. Plum tart with tufts of unsweetened whipped cream is the most European. Fluffy passion fruit brulee is the most elegant. Chocolate fanciers should seek out an indulgent wedge of gianduja torte.

If the cuisine doesn't necessarily trumpet Virginia, other than its use of local ingredients, the wine does. Girasole's list offers a dozen pours from the state by the glass, including a 2007 sauvignon blanc ($9), refreshing with grapefruit notes, from Linden Vineyards and a deep ruby-colored 2003 Norton ($7) from Chrysalis. (Norton is an impressive grape native to Virginia.)

Walking through an archway and onto the stone patio en route to a reservation, I'm tempted to stay put outside. But the interior, wrapped in windows and handsome in honey-colored heart pine, is designed to pull the outdoors in. The main dining room (there's also a lounge nearby and space upstairs) is cheery with sprays of fresh flowers and panels depicting rolling hills, painted, as it turns out, by the chef's brother, artist Robert Patierno.

After my last meal, I learned that the chef's wife, Lydia, is his business partner and that the couple own another, older restaurant in Manassas called Panino. But the most important message I walked away with was this: A guy needs to stop and smell the garlic sometimes.


Two stars (Good)

Girasole, 4224 Loudoun Ave., The Plains. 540-253-5501.

Dinner: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday; brunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Major credit cards.

Prices: Dinner appetizers $6-$12.50, entrees $19.50-$30.50

Sound check: 60 decibels/Conversation is easy.

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