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Curtain Up

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 17, 1999

  Richman Review

Turning Tables
Looks like Pesce is fishing for a new chef. Justin Nielsen, on board since the summer, resigned last month to become dining room chef at the Pentagon City Ritz-Carlton.
Should you ever doubt that food is entertainment, drop by Goldoni. Chef Fabrizio Aielli has moved his Venetian restaurant out of its original dining room – which has been razed to make way for the West End's new Ritz-Carlton – to a site nearby. The old restaurant, with its airy, sky-lit room, had a poetic look. This one is pure theater. The walls of the ground-level dining room are decorated with murals of circus performers. The curved staircase, leading up to the main dining room, is carpeted in red, making the entryway just right for the grand finale of a musical extravaganza.

The downstairs room, with its blue-tiled floor and long marble bar, is the more casual; I prefer it. The upstairs room features a blinding gold lion on one wall, and windows overlooking an outdoor sculpture. Aielli has toiled mightily to overcome the claustrophobic feel of this office-building commercial space, but given its low ceilings and boxy dining areas, he doesn't quite succeed. I want the old building back. But then, I'd guess Aielli does, too.

He seems to be trying to compensate with ever more baroque dishes. He treats the plate as a stage, throwing in a chorus and orchestra with every starring fish fillet or venison medallion. Listen to this from his six-course New Year's Eve menu: "A roll of veal stuffed with salsify and figs wrapped in prosciutto served with a sauce of recioto wine and a puree of baby spinach." It should have been accompanied by trumpets and drum rolls.

Every time I go to dinner at Goldoni, I wish it were lunch instead. Since lunch is a quicker meal, Aielli has to simplify. That's when his cooking is pared down to fewer embellishments, his dishes are less cluttered. Of course, you could go for dinner and order a whole fish just grilled, filleted at the table and dashed with an herbed olive oil, accompanied by polenta and an unadorned green vegetable. It's inevitably touted as the specialty. But maybe you don't want fish. Or maybe, when you are paying nearly $100 a person for dinner, you expect something with a little more creativity. The trick is to find just enough of Aielli's creativity.

Although the menu changes twice a day, the appetizers are likely to include thinly shaved meats – raw beef, prosciutto – and towers of mozzarella and vegetables, tiny stuffed phyllo triangles and elaborately packaged shellfish. I was intrigued by the idea of mashed salsify in phyllo, and delighted to find pomegranate seeds exploding tart juice at each bite. But in retrospect I'd have been equally happy with the salad of arugula, pomegranate seeds and Asiago cheese at half the price.

Similarly, oysters wrapped in crisped prosciutto on a pool of saffron sauce the color of molten gold was dazzling to the eye and at the first bite. But I wasn't tempted to order it again; I'd prefer plain oysters. And at one dinner, two high-style appetizers, shrimp with roasted peppers and Parmesan, and puff pastry with eggplant and Asiago cheese, tasted dowdy compared with a more humble salad of roasted red onions and oranges. In appetizers, the less fussy, the better.

Goldoni's pastas and risottos are unpredictable. They can be fabulous, they can be memorable. A risotto at lunch was utterly creamy, with just a slight bite to each grain, blossoming with the flavors of a winy stock, porcini mushrooms and bits of braised beef. Yet at dinner, the crab, mascarpone and zucchini couldn't stand up to its chewy rice. And often the noodles lack delicacy, so that a veal ravioli I tried was more admirable for its meat filling than its coarse wrappers, and lobster-foie gras tortelli climbed heavenward with its truffle-scented sauce of honey and lemon, but the tough pasta brought it back to earth. I'll always watch for Aielli's gutsy and mysterious fettuccine made with a touch of chocolate in the dough and a potent sauce of rabbit that's as intense as a Mexican mole. Thus I was surprised to find a lunchtime fettuccine with chicken, pancetta and eggplant damp and bland, the noodles spongy rather than supple. And handsome golden disks of airy gnocchi at dinner were swamped by a sweet-and-sour veal sauce with pears, so strong that after a few bites it grew tiresome.

Here's what I love about lunch: Venetian liver is sliced very thin and sauteed so lightly that it's barely brown, tossed with meltingly soft onions and rosemary-scented pan juices. The meat is so tender and delicate you might not identify it as liver but as some wild buttery new meat. The dish is a few ingredients combined with a touch of magic. Salmon looks more familiar – a fillet, roasted and perched on bright green spinach that's itself on a pedestal of portobello mushroom. The salmon is superb, roasted so that it's melting and juicy inside. And its vivid green pool of arugula sauce adds color more than unnecessary flavor. There's some mashed potato on the side, and filaments of fried leek decorate the top. Also at lunch, the pork chop has been undercooked, but otherwise plain and good. Roast chicken is crusty and moist, carved thickly and tossed with browned potatoes and spinach, but then topped with an acidic, overreduced mushroom sauce. As I find so often here, less would be more.

At dinner, the accessories weigh down the plates. A glorious veal chop is also, like the chicken, demeaned by its sauce of wild mushrooms. Aielli doesn't know when to stop. Delicious leg of lamb sliced paper thin, yet meaty and juicy, is masked by a sauce too sweet and too strong, topped with a silly lacy potato hat. Chilean sea bass, waving a flag of rosemary, is wrapped in prosciutto and once again eclipsed by a sweet winy sauce.

There's plenty to admire and enjoy here, to be sure. But with prices reaching $19 for a crab appetizer, $26 for linguine with clams and $31 for risotto – albeit with lobster – Aielli has little room for error. Desserts, too, run from $8 – for ice creams and sorbets that might or might not be delicious – to $10 for a tiramisu or cake lavished with froufrous of sugar and chocolate but not necessarily wonderful at the center. A whimsy of mango mousse, ginger, mandarin orange and mint tea sorbet is memorable mostly for its macerated fruits, while a chocolate cappuccino cake led us to scrape up its irresistible bittersweet frosting but leave the cake. The favorite dessert of all my visits was unembellished coffee-praline ice cream.

The service, like the food, has a tendency to be overwrought, to try too hard, to push too much, to overwhelm. Fabrizio Aielli and his staff need to relax a little, calm down, fuss less.

Osteria Goldoni – 1120 20th St. NW. 202-293-1511. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5 to 9:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate smoking area. Prices: lunch appetizers $4.95 to $8.95, entrees $9.95 to $19.95; dinner appetizers $5.95 to $18.95, entrees $15.95 to $30.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $60 to $100 per person.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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