Open Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 6 to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. AE, D, CB, V, MC. Reservations. Prices: Pastas at dinner average $8.50 to $10.50, main dishes range from $12.50 to $18. Dinner for two costs about $75.
Ponte Vecchio, as its name suggests, is a bridge, in this case between Georgetown and Foggy Bottom.
While from the outside it looks like just another office building restaurant, the inside is one of the more spectacular of Washington's restaurant interior. Ponte Vecchio has bravely broken the mold of red and pink Italian dining rooms, and turned to forest green for its inspiration. Worthy inspiration it was, for the restaurant looks like the inside of a green velvet candy box, with thick carpet, plush banquettes and walls wrapping the room in cool green, mirrors and enlarging the forest cave, and flowered curtains adding a spring touch.
Ponte Vecchio has broken other ground, too, in pricing its pastas up to $10.50 ($27.50 if you must have beluga caviar on your pasta), its veal dishes up to $16.50, its scampi up to $18. I think such ground could have been left unbroken.
Thus, keeping in mind that this new Italian restaurant is inordinately handsome and unconscionably expensive, you should know that it is quite good, but not quite as outstanding as those two vital characteristics.
Service is purely Italian -- professional, personable and flashy. Brass carts roll through the aisles, ready to warm plates and carve and serve. As far as the show goes, your money is well spent.
Constructing a meal from an Italian menu such as Ponte Vecchio's is a challenge; the choices are too wide for easy decisions. You could start with cold antipasti -- roasted peppers, artichokes, pate, smoked cod or the more universal smoked salmon, caviar or oysters. You could have hot antipasti -- snails with garlic, anchiovies, pepper and tomato sauce; asparagus with prosciutto and parmesan; or the most unusual and very delicious frogs' legs in a sherried cream with pine nuts. Any of those decisions is going to cost an average of $5. You could start with soup -- stracciatella, tortellini in brodo, cold avocado or fish soups -- for upwards of $3. Or you could skip over to the vegetables section for an appetizer of fried zucchini -- stubby cuts, lightly crusted -- or cold spinach with lemon and olive oil, elaborately garished with Boston lettuce, radish roses and tomatoes. Or you could have sauteed mushrooms, spinach or zucchini. These choices cost $2.50, the least exorbitant of the menu. Then there are salads -- $3.50 to $4.50. The most unusual is oranges and black olives, but it is less than interesting on the plate. Tomatoes and mozzarella salad is not on the dinner menu; no loss, since in high tomato and basil season it consisted of unripe tomatoes drowned in dried herbs.
Central to Washington's Italian menus are pastas, and like most of its competitors, pastas are the best dishes at Ponte Vecchio. That, of course, does not excuse their outrageous prices.Linquine with clams is faultless, its seasoning delicate and its tiny clams fresh, the oil good and linguine -- packaged, as one expects linguine to be -- properly cooked. But $6 at lunch, $8.50 at dinner is beyond its value. The agnolotti are fat pillows stuffed with spinach, lightened by ricotta, and with oysters whose taste is lost in the process. Good pasta it is, in a thick, heavily cheesed cream sauce. But it does not merit $10.50 for six agnolotti. Trenette, fine homemade noodles cut thin and tossed with crabmeat or caviar, is an excellent pasta, highly seasoned and intense with seafood flavor and a touch of tomato. Masterful as it is, though, its $10.50 tariff is steep.
Main courses are a parade of French and Italian seafoods (bass with fennel, salmon in champagne sauce, filets of sole, flamed lobster tail, scampi) and meats, mostly veal and steaks. Daily specials are likely to be French, the likes of steak bordelaise. Rack of lamb for two, marinated and coated with garlic and rosemary, sounded grand but tempted less at $30 for two. In addition to the seafoods and veals, the regular menu also lists steak Floretine, raw beef, filet of beef stuffed with goose liver and chicken breast arrabiata. The house specialty tops sauteed veal with avocado puree and mozzarella cheese, a misguided concoction of bland avocado paste and bland cheese that do nothing for the good veal. Veal at Ponte Vecchio is probably better stuffed with scampi or with ham and mushrooms; scaloppine with truffles, mushrooms and marsala sauce was a good production of beautiful veal carefully sauteed, and its light winy sauce was pleasant. But it was not memorable.
The best of the dinner dishes was not veal at all, but scampi in a rich, nutty, buttery cream that tasted of wine (but not of the truffles the menu promised). A pretty dish of plump pink shrimp in pale cream dotted with green of parsley, it was, even so, eclipsed by its risotto -- a glorious creamy mass of slowly cooked, buttery rice oozing with melted parmesan. Risotto was the dinner's star. At lunch one day the star was an unorthodox vitello tonnato, pretty slices of milky tender veal with a light, tuna- based vinaigrette rather than the usual mayonnaise-thick sauce. Lamb that day missed badly, though. Its russet sauce was deliciously herbed and tangy with lemon, but the meat had been reheated until it driied and curled, strong and heavy in flavor. With it were frozen peas tossed with canned mushrooms. Shameful.
Dinner accompaniments are better, usually being potato croquettes that are heavy but a serious endeavor. The bread is a wonderful chewy, crusty loaf. But unfortunatley, at most of the tables people were drinking wines inferior to the food and surroundings. The reason is simple; the wines are overpriced. Segesta, which serves many a home as a good inexpensive jug wine, here costs $12 a bottle. Even the California wines are all about $15 to $20 a bottle. Almost nothing is below that price except a house wine or special, which lately has been a nice '76 bordeaux at $9, a decent buy but too young to be happy drinking.
Even if you have gone the whole antipasto-pasta-main dish- salad route, the cart of pastries is likely to look tempting. The tarts and napoleons, however, are leaden and gelatinous. Better choices are the fruit-and-nut-studded frozen cassatta and the zabaglione the captain will whip at your tableside and pour into a tall flute.
You will have eaten well -- sometimes memorably, but more often just well. You will have been served grandly by a staff that knows its job well enough to go beyond competence to graciousness. You will have enjoyed a handsome and comfortable space at your leisure. You will pay $35 to $45 -- or more -- a person for the experience. You may rightly wonder if it is worth it.