Open Tuesday through Friday for lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; and Tuesday through Sunday for dinner, 5:30 to 11 p.m. AE, BA, MC, V. Reservations. Prices: Pastas at dinner average $5, main courses $7 to $10. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $20 a person
Northwest Washington and the Montgomery county suburbs have had the peculiar tradition of combining lush living possibilities with an arid dining environment. So few are their restaurants of distinction compared to Virginia or downtown that lines form at the mere mention of a new one. No, scratch that. It works both ways; in some cases, residents are so unused to dining out in their corner of the Beltway that good new restaurants wither unnoticed as evening traffic zips downtown.
Such is Trattu West, the second new restaurant this season to open in the Westmoreland Circle area. Before the opening of Country Living (which has been restaffing and bears watching), a Wagshal's sandwich in the car was the nearest thing to dining out within a mile (unless, of course, one chose seated dining at the American University cafeteria), yet Trattu West is far less populated than one would expect.
It has all the qualifications that diners say they want when they are looking for "a nice restaurant." That means not extravagant, not necessarily one of the top restaurants in town, but softly lit and comfortable and attractive, with enough space between the tables that if your next-door neighbors happen to be sitting nearby, you can still talk about the ugly color they painted their house.
Trattu West is indeed softly lit -- or can be, when evening comes -- as well as attractively furnished in brown and white, with booths and carpeting that are also soft. Its tables are spaced as generously as suburban single-family houses rather than crowded like in-town highrise apartments. In fact, the acreage covered by the entrance hall could serve as an entire downtown cafe. While the environment is low-key and sedate, the effort has been made to provide flourishes -- capacious wine glasses, delicate crystal oil lamps for each table and interesting contemporary art works. Except for the booth tables being a shade too far from their accompanying seats, this is a particularly comfortable restaurant, in contrast to the original Trattu downtown, which is attractive but has none of the space and quiet that would encourage one to linger.
Trattu West has waiters who know their job, definitely professionals, though they don't always bother to muster all their professionalism. Chances are, though, that you will find well-honed service, a waiter who knows how to pour wine and to watch for your final forkful to leave the plate, and keeps up your spirits if the kitchen is slow. Once, in fact, I had two waiters competing to serve our table, it being the only one occupied. They took turns serving and entertaining us. One night when the two rooms were full, however, the wait for our food was interminable, the order was slightly awry, and the pace grew progressively sluggish -- it would have taken Steve Martin to keep us entertained that evening.
Here are some things that Trattu West does well: It stuffs zucchini with herbed ground veal as an appetizer. It concocts good, homey soups. It seasons its food boldly, the lamb with rosemary, the pastas with cheese, the trout with capers and olives, even the sauteed potatoes and zucchini with herbs. It prices the food reasonably, the $5 pastas in many cases homemade, the $9 and $10 meat dishes generous. Two particularly good main dishes have been Chicken Trattu, covered with pimientos, and a skewered combination of lamb, beef, veal, bacon and sausage that was tangy from its vinegar marinade and crusty from its grilling. Our favorite moment at Trattu West, however, was discovering that scottaditi d'agnello had been translated on the menu as "teenage lamb cutlets." sThe cannibalistic teen-agers in our group loved them, not just because of their description but because they were thin, spicy, and cooked rare, though they were excessively greasy. Most of the desserts are middling pastries, but sliced oranges with candied peel in a caramel-marsala sauce are a refreshing antidote to pasta and cream. Finally one of the most endearing characterists of Trattu West is its wine list -- small, totally Italian, and priced very reasonably with a choice of chianti classico, frascati, soave, orvieto classico, pinot grigio, verdicchio or valpolicella for $8.50. That is a sensible pricing plan.
Given the fact that nobody -- including, I presume, the management -- mistakes this for one of the best restaurants in Washington, it is certain to do a number of things badly. The very generous portion of agnolotti was good, and its spinach filling and sauce were well seasoned, but its dough was pasty. The same can be said for sauteed veal, its surface floury and its sauce starchy. One day the trenette alla carbonara was zesty with bacon and cheese, another day not much more than buttered noodles with a hint of cheese and bacon. Several dishes -- roast lamb, trout -- have tasted as if they have been retired to the refrigerator too long. And why the daily special would be osso bucco during a summer heat wave is beyond my understanding.
Still, Trattu West has a small but wide-ranging variety of Italian homestyle food, from colorful salads to stuffed veal to sausages on spinach. And pizza is promised in the future, the most intriguing prospect being quattro stagioni with artichoke, mushrooms and ham.