Open Monday through Friday noon to 3 p.m. and 6 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, BA, MC. Reservations recommended.
Food: La dolce victuals
Style: Italy con brio
WASHINGTON'S NORTHERN ITALIAN restaurants serve even more pretension than pasta. More haughtiness than house salads. I attribute it to the insecurity of being nouveau chic. But Geranio, a distant relative to Tiberio, is a relaxed second-generation northern Italian restaurant with no need to put on airs. They do, however, put on a show, a continuous round of greetings and jokes ("Is this bread sourdough?" "No, madam, it is all right.")
Don't go to Geranio if you are not in the mood for fun. And don't go without a reservation, because it has only sixty-five seats, which Alexandrians have tended to claim as their own since Geranio opened last summer.
One other hint: dress warmly. The times I visited, the heating system had not been perfected, and even the warmth of the staff did not make up for the chill.
Certain dishes you should not miss at Geranio. Soups, for instance, are memorable herbed, garlicky broths, heartened with chick-peas and al dente macaroni or with beans and pasta. Mozzarella in carrozza is a delectable rendition of the runny fried cheese in a crisp crust, topped with anchovy and garlic butter.
Garlic is the basso continuo of this restaurant; it haunts nearly every dish, to great benefit.
I can't tell you much more about the appetizers because I never managed to resist the soups and pastas. Geranio will serve half portions of their pastas on request, and it would be masochistic to miss them. Cannelloni alla fiorentina are stuffed with the lightest mince of veal and spinach, in the most silky noodles, sauced with creamy bechamel and a bit of light fresh tomato sauce. Then they are sprinkled with parmesan and browned to a crusty golden finish. It is subtle, fragile, a glorious pasta dish. Lasagne, too, is tender and delicate, a construction of homemade noodles with bechamel and tomato sauce, only distantly related to the lusty, meat-laden lasagne which we encounter everywhere from cafeterias to spaghetti houses. Close to these two is the fettucine alla crema, homemade noodles smothered in cream and cheese. Linguine with clams was simple and fresh, but no match for the more elaborate pasta dishes.
Geranio handles meats as well as its pasta. Pollo sorpressa, a kind of chicken kiev with garlic, is crisp-crusted, yet moist within. Chicken is also beautifully rendered as pollo milanese (sauteed breaded chicken breast covered with fresh roasted pimientos) and pollo bella napoli (the same sauteed breast topped with succulent fried eggplant, mozzarella and a touch of tangy tomato sauce). Veal is sauteed so that is remains as moist as it is pale, then sauced with cream and mushrooms or pimientos and mushrooms. Even a simple veal with lemon comes off appealingly tart, its tiny wedges of lemon balanced by a buttery beige sauce. Only osso bucco fell flat, its sauce shy on the garlic and lemon so generously strewn elsewhere. Sea bass, too, was a dull dish, too long in the cooking, too heavy on the fennel seeds. But don't let that discourage you from other seafoods; the calamari alla luciana, for instance, is a grand concoction of rings of squid in a dark red essence of wine, tomato and olive oil, the kind of sauce you dare not leave without a few swipes of your bread. Then there is the lamb, aptly named agnello di dio, marinated baby chops served in a fragrant sauce nearly black and very tart.
Even the side dishes are distinctive at Geranio. Usually there are sliced potatoes or buttery pale yellow rice flecked with parsley. And often you get barely cooked, very garlicky zucchini which somebody bothered to seed before sauteing in olive oil.
Desserts during my visits were usually limited to a strawberry tart. But it was a flaky-crusted tart with a dab of fine pastry cream and light glaze over the berries, good enough that I was happy to reassess it each time. Once the possibilities were varied with fresh raspberries in heavy cream, a praiseworthy alternative. And the dark, heavy Neapolitan coffee was always excellent.
Lunch at Geranio could happily consist of just chick-pea soup and an ample salad that often contains fresh fennel slices though it is otherwise unextraordinary. The daily specials tempt you beyond such simplicity with fennel-scented sausage and spinach sauteed in oil and garlic, or mussels in wine and tomato sauce. I will make your choice easier by advising that you can miss the omelets.
At lunch, main courses run about $3 to $5. You could eat soup and salad with a glass of wine (the house wines are carefully chosen) for less than $4, or you could spend $10 if you run through the menu. At dinner, pastas are $5.25 to $5.75, and meat and fish dishes range from $6.25 to $8.75. The small wine list, consisting mostly of Italian wines for $8 or $9, won't increase your bill enormously, but a full meal with tip will cost $15 to $20 a person.
What you get for your money is some very good cooking from a menu more interesting than extensive. The pink table-cloths and whitewashed walls are set with flowers - fresh on the tables, rendered as paintings on the walls. The rooms are simple and pretty, small enough so that the service is personal. You can dress as you wish - the chef, as a matter of fact, comes out in a red turtleneck sometimes. It is restaurant beyond pomposity.