Open Tuesday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and Tuesday through Saturday 5:30 to 10 p.m. BA, AE, DC
Food: Undistingushed Italian cooking
Style: Colorful and bustling, with service in fits and starts
Sometimes, in a crowded restaurant, I wonder what everyone else knows that I don't know. It was Saturday night at Frascati, and not a table was empty. Yet at my table we were trying to brave strips of veal in a tough, hard breading twice as thick as the meat. Our homemade cannelloni - spicy, oversalted meat paste stuffed into thick noodles of no particular character and covered with a white sauce of equivalent indistinction - had followed a mushy minestrone with what tasted like pre-packaged grated cheese. What wasy everyone else enjoying?
Through repeated visits I found some satisfactory answers: mussels a bit sandy but plumply steamed in peppery, garlicky olive oil and herbs. Very good bread. Crisp cannole with smooth ricotta filling. Sometimes the vegetables accompanying main courses are such treats as sauteed green peppers or fresh mushrooms.
But other days the mushrooms taste canned, and leaden breaded eggplant bits are served as a side dish. And the veal scallops are cut paper-thin from second-quality meat. The "delicate homemade spinach green ravioli," tortellini verdi, are suspiciously bright green, too thick and filled with a grainy ham mixture. The red sauces on the pasta are wan purees, the kind you might expect from a jar. And the house cakes are oversweetened and bland, sometimes stale.
So the mystery remains. It is obvious that Frascati does better with seafood and olive oil and butter sauces than with meat and tomato sauces. Though the sole was faintly bitter, perhaps too lemony for some tastes, but not for mine. The clams with spaghetti were fresh morsels. And rabbit, tangy with lemon and fragrant with olive oil and rosemary, was of fine flavor even though it was cooked to a dry stage.
Prices are lower than some of Frascati's neighboring Italian restaurants, but still most entrees run $6 to $7, the pastas $4 to $4.75. A full dinner with the house wine will be $12 to $14 a person after tip. The best buys on the menu are the excellent cappuccino at ninety cents and American coffee at thirty-five cents. And the dozen or so wines - all Italian - are mostly under $6. But the prices are not low enough to, in themselves draw crowds.
Nor is the service a crowd pleaser. Slow but fervent, the waiter may offer you lots of advice and suggestions, then abandon you to deal with them on your own. Convivial when he was around, our waiter seemed to have forgotten our existence until, nearly a half-hour after we finished eating, we had to hail him for coffee.
The room itself is no special treat, walled in wood veneer overlaid with a dismal collection of paintings - with price tags on them. Iron railings topped with plastic ivy. Red table-cloths. It looks like a Hollywood version of a neighborhood Italian restaurant.
Maybe that's the key to Frascati's success. It looks the kind of place where, in the movies, the couple becomes engaged over a straw-covered bottle of Chianti and returns fifteen years later on the verge of divorce only thave the very same rotund, moustached waiter remember them and rekindle their love with a bowl of Mama's zuppa di pesce. I saw a lot of zuppa di pesce being served at Frascati.