Open Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 6 to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations.
Food: Pesta is its reason for being, and enough of a reason
Style: Small, dark and handsome
Price: Pastas average $5 to $7, meat dishes $8 up; full dinners about $15 a person
Remember when spaghetti was what you fed the kids before payday? Even centuries ago, pasta was considered coarse food, not just because factory workers kneaded it with their feet, but because it was but a humble paste of flour and eggs or water. In the best American tradition, however, any food can make it to fame and fortune with the right exposure, and pasta - particularly since the American mouth discovered it could be as green as money and as subject to barely discernible distinctions as wine - has turned into culinary white gold. Pasta machines have become nearly as much a kitchen fixture as Cuisinart Food Processors (which can be used to knead the dough if you don't feel like taking your shoes off). Washington chefs have become celebrities purely on the basis of the texture of their fettuccine. Endless discussions center on the relative merits of one or another restaurant's tortellini and whether the chef's pasta is bullish or bearish. In Italy pasta is supporting cast; in Washington it has become the star, as this city becomes entangled in a web of tagliatelle. Give us enough linguine and we will hang ourselves.
Thus, Petitto can live by pasta alone - though lately it has chosen not to. A sign in the window proclaims that pasta is all they make (which is no longer true). The walls are a gallery of pasta photos and pasta drawings and pasta cartoons. The fine print on the menu is as complicated as an insurance contract. Your tongue tries to anticipate the meaningful difference between spaghettini alla checca (fresh tomatoes, olive oil and basil) and al basilico & pomodoro (basil and tomato sauce). Over two dozen variations buffet you between the choices - fettuccine with cream, butter you between the choices - fettuccine with cream, butter and parmesan, or spaghettini with just butter and parmesan. Where once you might have been satisfied with spaghetti and meatballs - even thrilled when it was elevated by being called spaghettini con polpette & pomodoro - you begin to envision a life of fettuccine al caviale (with caviar and sour cream) and have ambitions towards linguine aragosta alla diavola, even though this lobster-based preparation is listed ominously as "$10 up".
Caloric inhibition flies on the trail of wheaten appetizers - bread toasted with tomatoes and basil or pasta and white bean soup. And, though the menu brazenly designates over a dozen of its dishes as specialties (making you wonder why the other two dozen were denied the honor), the fried bread and garlic bread are set in whole category called "specialties," thus are not easily resisted.
This is a restaurant alive with anticipation. Fireplaces warm the two small rooms, which are painted chocolate brown. A floor-to-ceiling window looks on small evergreens outside backed with a trellis that keeps the world of back alleys at bay. Waiters in white shirts act intelligently solicitous. They make you feel as if you are enjoying yourself even when things fall short of their promise. The kitchen lags, so the waiter brings your salad first, and you relax to its crisp romaine anointed with olive oil and gilded with freshly grated parmesan. Lingering over the bread might be a hardship except that here it gives you time to savor its heavy crisp crust and fix it in your mind for next time some white fluff is passed off as Italian bread.
The kitche appreciates that if you buy the best you don't need to mess around with it much. Thus, the antipasto (a vast platter that should be shared among several people) seduces you on through every bite of the tangy hams and peppered salami, the rough, earthy provolone, slices of mushroom, two kinds of firm, smartly briny olives and pickled golden peppers. But if you prefer a warming start, the clams marinara are a zingy tomato-parsley-oil-pepper rendition, and the minestrone is a light version with crunch left to the vegetables and basil wafting with the steam.
As for the pasta, your best choice depends on whether you like bite or subtlety, but most have considerable merit. In the lively vein are spaghettini alla matrachini - bits of tomato and chunks of hot pepper with bacon and cheese, as good a dish as the kitchen produces. The carbonara (bacon, egg and parmesan) is smoky and unctuous; the clams with olive oil and herbs are sprightly. On the dedicate side as falasche alla Petitto, green and white noodles with an understated cream sauce and bits of prosciutto, peas and mushroom. More simple, the fettuccine all'Alfredo di Roma is creamy and parmesan-enriched, quite good, if not among the best in town. There are disappointments - lasagne suffering from heat exhaustion, its diced carrots and peas cooked so long they added a Campbell's Alphabet flavor; and tortellini crunch and raw rather than al dente. Pasta with vegetables sauces are a commendable idea, except that the vegetables - broccoli, cauliflower or asparagus - are laid on top like an afterthought, and at least the asparagus needed peelin.
The tone of the place is convivial, and while the fettuccine tasts more handcrafted than the linguine and spaghettini, there is little temptation to nitpick. The dishes are usually good, there is an impression that everyone is trying hard, and complaints are graciously received. Lately, too, the menu has added a few non-pata dishes like filet of veal and seafood. The quality of the veal is faultless, and it is carefully cooked, either simply battered or in a sweetly fragrant scallion-flecked wine and cream sauce. But along with this experimentation comes some that ought not to be repeated. For instance, the most expensive dish on the menu was a blandly sauced lobster and shrimp alla diavola with mushy lobster and tough shrimp, a disaster at any price but infuriating at $12.
The wine list is almost exclusively Italian, with well-chosen imported house wines. Most bottles are under $7, but the Castel del Monte is worth edging up to $7.25.
If you go on to desert, the cannole happily collapse at the slightest touch, and taste sweetly creamy. The after-meal specialty, however, is cappuccino or espresso laced with liqueurs from amaretto to anisette. Frothy and rich, they warm you from your toes up.
The sky being the limit with restaurant pasta these days, $4 to $7 is no longer considered an outrage for such dishes. And $15 a person can no longer be considered expensive for a dinner that takes you from antipasto through liqueur and leaves room for a tip. Petitto's is like a lovely face that feature by feature is fairly ordinary, but put together seems uncommonly attractive.