Open daily, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5:30 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11:30. AE, CB, D, V. No reservations. Prices: Pastas $4.25 to $6.50, main courses average $7.50 at lunch and dinner. Two hours of free parking in rear.
With the price of pasta in restaurants going up faster than oil, a backlash of Italian restaurants offering no-frills, cut-rate homemade pastas at bargain rates (no more than twice the price they were three years ago) is bound to occur. Accordingly, as when French restaurant prices escalated and a new genre of moderately priced French restaurants moved into the void, a rash of moderately priced northern Italian restaurants has begun to fill the emptiness between mass-produced spaghetti and meatballs and linguine with caviar. Here are three that are by no means inexpensive, but are a step down in price from the first wave of elegant Italian restaurants, yet ambitious and attractive.
Like the little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead, when Candelas is good, it is very, very good. And when it is bad, it is just horrid. To start on an upbeat note, there is free parking -- in Georgetown, yet. To end on a downbeat note, the parking is only for two hours, and even lunch can take considerably longer, given the apparent competition between the kitchen and dining room to see which can play a greater role in slowing the pace.
Candelas has turned restaurant space that already was basically attractive into one of true festivity. Italian wine bottles sunk into a stucco wall throw a stained glass glow. Old brick and rough-hewn beams are lighted by red tapers in the brass wall sconces and on the tables. Red and green napkins folded as fans turn the dining room into a party. Restraint -- in the soft Italian music, the few brass artifacts and a sprinkling of plants -- has left Candelas looking and feeling warm and pretty.
Unlike most Washington restaurants, Candelas has the same menu -- and prices -- at lunch and dinner. An average of $5 to $6 for pastas and $7 to $8 for veal dishes seems moderate for dinner, but lunchers may be taken aback. The choice is extensive: 16 pastas, nine appetizers, shrimp, scallops, squid, mussels and fish, several veal dishes and a few of beef and chicken. The rendition, though, is mysteriously erratic.Cold appetizers have been fine, from the garlicky and lemony seafood salad to the creamy beef salad in a red cabbage cup. But the combination with "generous supplies of" cold meats and salads was a stingy melange of dry, bland chicken and eggplant salads with no cold meats as promised. Pastas, too, had their highlights -- zesty, pungent spaghetti carbonara and excellent sauces on fettucine with seafood and fettucine alla bolognese -- but the pastas themselves were dried out on the surface, so if they had been held on the plate after cooking; and linguine with clam sauce was half fresh clams and half canned, while fettucine Alfredo was bright yellow in color but pale in flavor.
One day the seafoods were impeccably cooked; another day the scallops were chewy and fishy in flavor, the squid oversalted and drowned in tomato sauce that made the squid itself inconsequential. The veal dishes start with good quality meat, and the cream that sauces them is rich, though tasting sometimes of raw wine. A potentially great dish is ostrica di vitello, stuffed with ricotta and prosciutto, but the ham substituted quantity for quality. Breaded chicken was just lumpish, but the kitchen can turn out superlative fresh fish. Whatever the disappointments, you have a good chance with desserts, for there is usually a brownie-rich chocolate mocha torte with real whipped cream, and sometimes fruits in kirsch or Grand Marnier with whipped cream. The homemade amaretto ice cream is rustic, but its flavor compensates for its texture. And the cappuccino is full-flavored and foamy.