Open Tuesday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 6 to 10 p.m. or later; Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Reservations at dinner and for large groups at lunch and brunch. Prices: Main courses at dinner $5.75 to $10.50. Full dinner averages $20 or more a person.
A few months ago I would have written exuberantly of a pretty, modestly priced new restaurant in Great Falls, Va., its accomplishments in accord with its prices and its loveliness in excess. Now, though, I must write with reservation of a nearly expensive new restaurant in Great Falls, for the dinner main courses in the interim have been raised by about $2, and the cost-benefit ratio has been realigned. A $7.50 veal invites forgiveness, as does an $8.75 steak. But a $9.25 veal and a $10.50 steak bear full responsibility for their flaws.
Sign of the Dove is full of mirror tricks; the small, irregularly shaped room takes on grander proportions through mirrored walls and a terraced floor. The space between diners is vertical as well horizontal, so one feels greater privacy for being seated a few steps down as well as a few steps away. The room's designer understood the subtleties of space as well as the flattery of pink, the muffling of fabric. If Sign of the Dove looks like a stage set, it is a play you want to see. Dark, dark walls, perhaps green but hardly identifiable in the candlelight, contrast with Persian-looking fabrics. A leaded glass divider emphasizes privacy. On the tables are flowered Lenox service plates, pink candles in hurricane lamps and a few carnation or daisies with baby's breath. Near the entrance is a round buffet displaying antipasto ingredients and desserts with a vast centerpiece of whole fruits and vegetables. Soft Classical music plays. Waiters in black tie hover in attendance.
But they too, become mirror tricks, not really being there when you expect. A flurry of greeting is followed by an interminable wait for drinks, menus, appetizers. One weekday evening we yawned and worried about the next morning's alarm, for an hour and a quarter after we arrived, with no rounds of drinks, we had still not received our appetizers. We had not even been able to get our order taken for the first 40 minutes. The waiters were personable and enthusiastic but awkward in their tasks. The maitre d'hotel, who inquired if everything was all right, was told that the pepper steak was inedibly hot. But he merely answered, "Okay," and walked off.
Sign of the Dove can be a very good restaurant, and seeks to be such in details like superb Catania rolls served warm. The antipasto is not just the usual cold cuts, but includes a delicious, authentic caponata, with a sharp and tangy tuna-olive salad. While the selection is less than one expects from the menu's description, "hors d'oeuvres from the cart," it is unusually ambitious for a local antipasto.
If I had it all to do over again, my dinner at Sign of the Dove would consist of antipasto ($3) and pasta, either linguine with clams ($6.85 as a main course, $4.35 as appetizer) or fettucine alla colomba ($7.25 as main course, $4.75 as appetizer), the delicate homemade noodles sauced in the first cast with fresh clams and plenty of garlic, in the second case with cream, smoked salmon and caviar, the salty fish contrasting deliciously with the bland, very buttery cream. The six pastas are all homemade, supposedly by the matriarch of the family, certainly by somebody with long experience that shows in their texture. Tomato sauces are intense and long-cooked, a touch too sweet but nevertheless excellent. If your palate craves a challenge, the explosion of pepper in the spaghetti all'amatriciana should attract you.
The pepper on the strip steak called La Florentina -- now, that is another matter. First of all, a Florentine steak is not coated with peppercorns like French steak au poivre, but I won't quibble with names. However, the point of coating a steak with pepper requires using very coarse pepper so that not too much sticks to the meat, and grilling it on a very hot fire so the pepper chars into a crust and dissipates some of its sizzle. But this steak, at $10.50, besides being thin and indifferent beef, had far too much pepper on it and was cooked too slowly so that the meat was merely a vehicle for eating raw fire. That was the worst of the main dishes. The best was thick, rare lamb chops, these cooked crusty outside but still juicy, and topped with a tomato-onion-green pepper sauce. In between were swordfish well-seasoned with lemon, olive oil and oregano, then charcoal grilled, its flavor fine but its texture chewy because a fish steak so thin must be cooked with extreme care; shrimp similarly well-marinated and charcoal cooked and similarly overcooked; and Cornish hen likewise overcooked but less interestingly seasoned. The most interesting of the veal dishes was scaloppine rolled around prosciutto and cheese in a wine cream sauce, but the portion was very small, the ham very bland and the cream sauce too sweet, perhaps from using domestic rather than imported parmesan. It was a pretty good dish, or at least it was finished before its faults gained force.
After that, the meal grinds to a halt, for the "fresh vegetables of the season" are nicely sparked with onions, bacon or the like, but taste canned or frozen rather than fresh. The salad is a shrug of indifference, just iceberg lettuce with a few assorted shreds, too much vinegar and even more dried oregano. Dessert, promising "a selection of fresh fruits & cheeses or a choice of homemade dessert from our pastry table," offers just Bel Paese cheese, a zuppa inglese of cloying sweetness and pasty heaviness, perhaps a supersweet cannole or light and gritty chocolate mousse, and often the ubiquitous carrot cake. All can be skipped with no significant loss.
Sign of the Dove serves a hunt brunch on Sundays, and weekday lunches of sandwiches, salad bar and pastas. Pizza is anticipated once the pizza oven is repaired.
In the meantime, with judicious choice -- translated to mean "stick to the pasta" -- one could grow fond of dining at Sign of the Dove, at least if you live close enough to Great Falls so that you can afford to spend time waiting for dinner rather than needing that extra hour to drive home.