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Florence on the Hoof

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 16, 1998

  Richman Review

Turning Tables
A $5 meal is news enough, especially when it's right downtown. At House of Kabob, 1829 M St. NW, the bargain includes grilled meat (chicken on the bone is best; lamb tends to be dry and chewy) or vegetable kebabs, and an astonishing array of accompaniments. The rice is fragrant and buttery, sometimes tossed with barberries. The platter is further weighted down with long-cooked but flavorful spinach or chick peas, a big dollop of good vinegary diced tomatoes and cucumbers, a tiny cup of peppery yogurt sauce and a floppy round of just-baked pita. While this one-flight-up eatery has a few seats, most people carry out their lunch or dinner. They probably have enough left over for the next meal, too.
– P.C.R.
Vince MacDonald keeps reinventing his restaurant. Yet we'll probably always call it Vincenzo and eternally wish it could be just as it once was.

This time around, he's calling it Sostanza, which is the name of a legendary Florentine trattoria where the specialty is a big, thick, coarse-grained porterhouse steak seared to a crackly near-black over a wood fire and nudged nearly off its immense platter by a torrent of fried potatoes.

So, naturally, the specialty here is steak. And MacDonald has tracked down beef that's got real Italian ancestry. It comes from cattle that are part Chianina, an Italian breed that produces steaks full of flavor and low in fat. Sostanza doesn't manage to cook them over a wood fire, though, and that's a critical difference. The smoky flavor is missing. Even more important, lean steaks are tricky to time. They cook unevenly (the tenderloin darkens before the sirloin) and faster than well-marbled beef, and they taste like dust when they go beyond pink. Florence's Sostanza has decades of experience in controlling the heat. D.C.'s new Sostanza turns out steaks that are at best rare near the bone, and a juiceless gray here and there. They indeed display a heady meatiness where they're rosy, but that flavor doesn't compensate for where they go wrong. Thus that char-edged house specialty, La Fiorentina, a thin porterhouse for $27.75, can be much more succulent to the eye than to the taste. It was better when Sostanza offered it as a thick porterhouse for two. The other steak variations – strip, rib-eye or sirloin, with toppings of garlic and rosemary; tomato and garlic; mushrooms; peppers; balsamic vinegar; bread crumbs; or olives with capers-are thicker, perfectly decent hunks of beef, but nothing around which to build a high-priced restaurant.

This steak theme is a startling rejection of Vincenzo's origins. Two decades ago when the restaurant opened, it served practically nothing but fish. Now its menu includes only a couple of fish dishes, and soft-shell crabs fairly regularly in season. Even more surprising, those simple fish dishes – fillets such as grouper, cod or halibut, with oregano or olives, capers and currants – aren't nearly as delicious as they used to be. The fish have verged on the dry and bouncy, and their toppings are forgettable.

The mystery is deepened by the fact that the chef currently at Sostanza – until he gets around to opening his own restaurant, he says – is George Vetsch. Admittedly he's Swiss, not Italian. But as those of us who dined at his eponymous (but short-lived) restaurant on K Street know, he's a greatly talented cook.

Fortunately, there are some things at Vincenzo that have been left alone. The dining rooms, especially the main one with its long arched skylight, is as serene as ever. With white tablecloths, flickering terra-cotta lamps and a forest of greenery, it's a celebration of cool simplicity.

The waiters have lasted through many years of the restaurant's incarnations, and they have that quiet expertise that makes Italy's restaurants gently agreeable. When the dining room is empty they have a tendency to hover, but they handle impossibly busy mealtimes with aplomb. What's more, they know their menu and their wine list well enough to recommend just what you crave with your steak, whether something smooth and rounded or with a challenging rough edge. The list is small, but it is constructed thoughtfully, and the prices are sensible. In the $30 range you can easily find a red worthy of a great steak.

Okay, so it doesn't quite have a great steak to go with. And the accompanying potatoes have been soggy. But Sostanza still does some other things uncommonly well. As always, this restaurant excels at understatement. The fried zucchini side dish is impeccable, and the grainy, chewy Italian bread – with olive oil or butter provided only on request – is perfectly correct. And the menu has a point of view. Only four appetizers are likely to be listed any particular day, and they are utterly straightforward. Parma ham and cantaloupe. Stuffed zucchini – the stuffing no more elaborate than herbed bread crumbs. Grilled bread and mozzarella with anchovy. The inevitable tomato-mozzarella-basil salad. But the tomatoes are bought from the farmers market on Dupont Circle every Sunday by MacDonald himself. The cheese is chalk white, absolutely fresh and so soft it half melts into the tomato slices even without heating. And the vinaigrette is exactly what it should be, no more.

Vincenzo taught us a lesson all those years ago when it first opened. It served only dry pastas, from a box. None of the fashionable freshly made noodles. And they were irresistibly delicious. They were none but the best Italian brands, they were cooked just until they had a faint wiry firmness to them, and they were barely coated with fragrant clean-cut sauces – no pooling of soupy tomato or oil in the bowl. Now there are half a dozen pastas on the menu, available as half-portion appetizers if you ask. And the best ones are not the handmade fresh noodles such as fettuccine or tortelli. (Those are tender and pleasant, but wimpy under toppings of scant butter and Parmesan or acidic tomato.) The spaghetti and vermicelli – from a box – are distinctly more satisfying, particularly when tossed with chopped olives, anchovies and capers in just enough tomato sauce to moisten. Spaghetti with pesto – here made with almonds rather than pine nuts and also with a touch of tomato – is almost as irresistible.

Desserts are modest and homey, even beyond the berries and house-made ices. A chocolate almond cake is delicate, adorned only with whipped cream. Polenta cake is a heavier golden wedge, accompanied by whole plums poached in wine, also with cream. And you can still depend on Vince MacDonald for a classic espresso.

I expect that Sostanza will be just a blip in Vincenzo's history. First all-fish, then mostly meat: Can vegetarian be far behind?

Sostanza – 1606 20th St. NW. 202/667-0047. Open: for dinner Monday through Saturday 6 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, DC, MC, V. Reservations accepted. No smoking. Prices: appetizers $6.75 to $8.75, entrees $15.75 to $27.75. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $45 to $60 per person.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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