ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL: The new Italian restaurant sounded promising, so I invited a couple of pals to help me sample Extra Virgin (4053 S. 28th St., Arlington; 703-998-8474) last week. "It has the blessing of Cesare Lanfranconi," I told them, using the name of the chef at Washington's Tosca (1112 F St. NW), a consultant on the project, as a carrot. "And the chef used to cook at Galileo," one of the best-known restaurants in the city.
Things did not get off to a good start. It took several minutes for the receptionist to take my reservation ("How do you spell that again? How many people again?" Did you say this was for tonight?"), yet when two of us showed up at the host stand to check in, there was no record of my having ever called. Meanwhile, the third member of the group showed up less than a minute after I did but was seated in a different part of the restaurant -- a problem we discovered only after I called my typically punctual pal on his cell phone, and he informed me he was actually at Extra Virgin.
"That's funny!" our waitress responded when we told her about the slip-up. She proceeded to drip red wine all over the table as she timidly poured from a bottle and gave us a blank stare when we asked her to translate a few Italian words on the menu. Quiet chaos reigned. I overheard the table next to ours complain about how long it was taking for the food to arrive, and when a server dropped a glass on the floor, a bartender broke into loud applause. "Way to go!" he shouted for all to hear.
Executed by Daniele Catalani, the menu reads better than it tastes. The best dish I tried was a chicken leg stuffed with pork sausage and roasted to a golden turn. Polenta revealed the texture of glue, spaghetti with seafood looked as if the pasta had been run through a washing machine, swordfish was overcooked and "warm country tomato and bread soup" resembled sauce from a can. All the food was seasoned as if for a baby: It was bland, bland, bland.
"I'm still hungry," I said to my friends once we were out on the sidewalk. "Where do you want to go?" Extra Virgin sits on a street packed with places to eat, and we were in no mood to be disappointed twice in one night.
"Good evening!" the smiling hostess welcomed us as we strolled into Carlyle (4000 S. 28th St.; 703-931-0777) at the other end of the block. "We're just here for appetizers and drinks," I told her, thinking we might be relegated to the restaurant's busy bar. "Would you like a table? We can do that, if you'd prefer," she suggested, appearing to read my mind.
Our server was fast and friendly. The snacks we ordered were pretty and satisfying. All around us, people were smiling and laughing. Our evening was saved.