Even so, after roaming from Galileo to Donna Adele and other restaurants, Fargione, backed by Roberto Donna, has found a place that looks like it's made for him. The front dining room, a flight above the street and two stories high, is decorated like a giant's hunting lodge, with an immense stone mantel, wide rustic wood panels and a display of weaponry and regalia in a sort of three-dimensional coat of arms. The chairs are just short of thrones. Real candles flicker in the wall sconces. But the tables are bare of flowers or lighting, and though the room is tall, it is fairly small. Only a handful of tables fit here, with a few more on the balcony. A rear dining room was waiting to be furnished on my most recent visit, and in the middle, a bright-blue cigar room, though not officially open, reeked of smoke.
While the menu changes daily, it always lists a zany and adventurous profusion of flavors and ingredients that stretch one's conception of Italian food. Fargione wraps soft robiola cheese in a ham packet and dresses it with balsamic vinegar and honey. His endive and arugula salad is tossed with blood orange, goat cheese and walnuts. Duck in port wine is accompanied by chocolate pappardelle, and one day he was experimenting with tortelloni flavored with espresso. He is so fond of peppercorns that he features them in cream sauces, and they sear your mouth when you bite into rare tuna. He sets up a competition between sweet-spicy mostarda di Cremona and sharp, earthy Parmesan when he dresses a beef tenderloin, with truffles lost in the battle.
Sometimes the diner is left wondering, "What in the world?" But then there are delightful revelations:
Roasted lamb hearts may never have appeared in a white-tablecloth restaurant in all the history of Washington, at least not with a sauce of goat cheese, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic and rosemary. The result is a tangy appetizer that's meaty and delicious.
Underneath that outrageously peppery tuna one night was braised eggplant that Fargione had somehow turned into sweet-sour velvet that went beyond a mere vegetable.
A dish of coarse paste topped with small odd lumps is brought with the bread. It's an addictive mash of white beans topped with little bundles of prosciutto and cheese.
A "crayfish" appetizer turned out to be shrimp one day, but these were the sweetest, most flavorful and juiciest shrimp I'd tasted in ages. Sandwiched between rounds of silky polenta, topped with crisp pancetta in a sea of herb butter sauce, they made me want to stop the meal right there and consider them dinner.
Several cold appetizers, though, combine ingredients that ought to get along but that somehow don't communicate. The scallops and potatoes don't connect with the dressing; the balsamic vinegar drizzled on the plate of blood oranges and potatoes doesn't manage to flavor them. The parts are more than the whole.
If only Fargione's achievements were predictable. How is one to know that the pheasant is going to be chewy and taste bland against its sweet orange sauce, while the squab will be heightened by its delicate black olive sauce, and its spinach will be perfect? Lamb loins, wrapped in pancetta and set upright, look fussy but taste luscious, especially with sauteed fresh baby artichoke hearts and tiny roasted potatoes. But their "light tomato broth" tastes like tomato sauce reduced to a paste, and overwhelms the lamb.
What's touted as roast filet of veal is actually a chop on the bone all the more tasty and it's teamed just with mushrooms, which frame its flavor with nothing to distract. That and a roasted whole red snapper simply scattered with artichokes, black olives, capers and strips of tomato lead me to this recommendation: Unless you're a risk-taker and have a companion willing to share if your dish isn't a hit, circumvent the more complicated entrees.
One certainty is that Fargione has no instinct for pasta. Agnolotti filled with ricotta, mozzarella and spinach are bathed in a lovely rich sauce of mascarpone and Parmesan with pistachios, but I would rather have just the sauce and a spoon, since the wrappers are gummy and the filling tastes vague and starchy. The same was true of one day's giant raviolo. Doughy pasta with an unappealingly bitter and chewy filling sullied a nicely aromatic truffle sauce. Risotto has the right texture, but it is correct without being delicious, at least when it's blandly studded with morels, tomato and mushy crayfish. A $20 bowl of rice ought to be glorious.
Whether the desserts are delicious or not, if you hang around, you'll be driven to order one. They look like circus toys. They're constructed with chocolate latticework and flying buttresses. The strawberries are sliced in fans and the blueberries are meticulously halved, each one imagine the blueberry-prep person! Some of these creations are luscious. The tiramisu is so creamy and airy, so perfumed with coffee and chocolate, so free of oversoaked bits of cake that it reminds me, after I'd given up on the dish, why tiramisu became popular in the first place. Panna cotta is a bit too dense, but this classic white pudding has a fine caramel flavor and an arabesque of chocolate adorably hovering over it. A mango mousse, though, slips into true rubberiness.
Finally, Fargione breaks the mold with the coffee service. Espresso isn't the highlight here, not when there is excellent coffee brewed in individual silver plunger pots. This is a restaurant that goes that extra step even if it is sometimes a step too far.
Barolo Ristorante Da Enzo 223 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 202/547-5011. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, DC, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Smoking in bar only. Prices: lunch appetizers about $5.50 to $9.50, entrees about $11.95 to $15.95; dinner appetizers about $6 to $12, entrees about $13.95 to $25.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $40 to $65 per person.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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