Open for lunch daily 11:30 a.m.. to 2:30 p.m., dinner Monday through Saturday 6 p.m. to 10:45 p.m. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested on weekends. Prices: Pastas average $6 to $8, main courses $10 to $15. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $30 a person.
Dear Giacomo Oliveri:
Since you already have two restaurants in Italy, you are undoubtedly familiar with restaurant critiques, though perhaps somewhat different from those we write in Washington. Instead of just issuing your restaurant a certain number of stars, we like to tell you -- and your potential customers -- what we think you are doing well and what needs improvement. And since you are so new to American dining habits, I will tell you something about those, too.
We welcome you to Washington. While we already have plenty of Italian restaurants -- and more than enough top-price Italian restaurants -- we can always use another good one. And Washingtonians, in particular, love to try new and different restaurants.
I am sorry, for your sake, that you chose the Wellington Hotel. Its dining room is spacious and attractive, and the basement parking is handy (though rather hard to maneuver and labyrinthine in its access to the lobby). But several very good restaurants have had a hard time drawing sufficient business there, and it will take patience -- and money -- for you to keep going until diners get in the habit of finding you. From what I have seen, though, you have a better chance than most.
The dining room looks good since you have spruced it up; the walls glow like golden salmon under the chandeliers at night, and the large tables are a luxury of space (though sometimes the piano makes conversation difficult). What really sets the mood for an exciting evening, though, is the food display -- antipasti, fruits, nuts, cheeses, pastries -- that we see as we enter.
I also like your greeting, Giacomo.It is the strong personal touch of an owner welcoming diners, suggesting dishes, offering tastes of this and that, sending a liqueur after dinner, wishing you a good evening as you leave, that sets as restaurant more firmly in the public's shifting favor. I worry about your bouncing back and forth to Italy to look after your other restaurants, though I have seen your staff operate smoothly in your absence.
Troubles start with your menu, however. No, back up to the wine list. It is an impressive collection of Italian labels and breaks the dull routine of most Italian wine lists we see. But we are a society that likes data; information is central to us. So when a wine list has no prices, we get nervous.It is not enough to tell us that most of the wines are $12; we want to know which, and we also mistrust all those varied wines are set at the same price.
We also like more information on our menu. While most of your dishes now have an English translation written underneath, both the English and Italian lack the description we need to make our decisions. I know you mean "veal chop," not "veal wrap," as your menu translates nodino di vitello. But I want to know how that veal chop is going to be prepared. The menu tells me you have "branzino o orata," which the waiter is willing to translate as sea bass (rockfish, we call it locally) or red snapper. But he didn't tell me you bake it in salt and that it is the best dish on the menu; I had to learn that when I saw it served to the next table. When your staff knew me as a restaurant critic after two visits, they recommended the rockfish in parchment -- and they were right, that it equalled the salt-baked fish. It was the perfect preservation of pure, delicate, fresh flavor, needing no more saucing than a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of olive oil. It is fish as moist and simple and exquisite as I would expect to find on the Italian coast.
But why did I have to wade through dishes like overcooked veal chop with gritty dried sage crumbled on top? That dish should be served only when you have fresh sage. And why did the waiter say the fiorentina toscana -- at $18 -- was an authentic Florentine T-bone steak, when it was actually a rib steak, nicely crusty but chewy and badly butchered so it was thin -- and therefore overcooked -- at the edge, much thicker at the bone end?
Why did the waiter tell us the Langhirano prosciutto was imported when you volunteered that it was domestic? (At least you lowered the price on your new menu by $3, though the claim of Italian origin persisted.)
I see by your new prices that you are a fast learner. You have dropped the anitpasti $1 to $3, though the $4 to $8 level is still high. Your pastas, now down to $6 and $8, are reasonable for their quality; though the ravioli and tortellini are a bit heavy, they are homemade and cooked to just the right point, and their sauces are fine. I like the simplicity of your cooking: simply lots of thick bacon and egg and cheese for the carbonara, simply thick cream and ham for the tortellini, tomato and hot peppers for the pennette del diavolo. Your pappardelle are excellent fat noodles, probably your best pasta.
By now I have learned what to order. The risotto to start, though I'll pass up the risotto alla Giacomo until you find a more pungent ham. It is exciting to have a choice of eight risottos, and $6 is a fair price for them. If the risotto with lobster or squid or mushrooms or cheese or asparagus can match your risotto with artichokes and shrimp -- creamy, firm, slightly tomatoey, with crunchy shrimp and flavorful fresh artichokes -- I'll try them all in turn.
I hope you'll keep seving your fennel salad, so crisp and simple with just oil and a touch of acid. And keep up the wonderful buttery fresh green beans. But I never know whether you are going to serve a salad or vegetable -- and whether you are going to charge extra for the salad. We Americans tend to like more certainty.
I haven't found a veal or beef dish on your menu that was nearly as enticing as your fish. Though I did once have a mixed grill of fish that was days past its prime, the sea bass is what I would order every time, yet if you cooked your shrimp a few moments less I would be sure to get around to that wonderful herbed saute on occasion.
While your dessert cart looks marvelous I find some of the pastries too sweet and some too dry. If I wanted a sweet I would order the dark creme caramel or watch the captain whip up zabaglione. But I would never end without your cheese assortment. Few restaurants in Washington serve well-ripened and high-quality cheeses, and by doing so you win superiority not only over our Italian but also our best French restaurants. I am willing to forgive the unattractive individual plastic wraps of the cheeses, for where else could I get such oozingly ripe gorgonzola, fontina and that superb mascherpone-gorgonzola mixture you serve? And your espresso -- a proper half-cup of darkest brew -- that's Italian!
Your way with a menu can work if your staff take the initiative to discuss and recommend dishes -- the very best and freshest of your dishes -- with every single diner. But that's more likely to work in Italy than here. Finally, whatever way you communicate, either by menu or by mouth, if you steer your customers towards your best, if you don't raise your prices back to the ridiculous level they were before the middle of January, and if you increasingly emphasize your freshness and simplicity you can turn the Wellington Hotel into one of the best restaurant addresses in town.