Too hot to cook. It's fast-food season, when kids learn that the bounty of summer is hamburgers and french fries. But there is life beyond fast food, even for families with hefty children and light budgets. Consider moving the family out of the fast-food lane to rediscover the neighborhood restaurant.
Of course, dinner at a neighborhood restaruant is slower, and its food can vary from day to day. You may have to set price guidelines for children wandering into the seafood side of the menu. And it's quirky; you don't necessarily know what to expect as you would at a chain restaurant. but those can be at advantages; you get more than routine for your money.
Take for instance, the Adams-Morgan Spaghetti Garden.
It has no garden, although there is a plant in one corner.
Its mainstay is spaghetti, its menu clearly Italian, but it has a decidedly Middle Eastern air.
But that's the point. By the time you finish your family is likely to know that the restaurant is run by three brothers -- waiter, bartender and cook -- who have come from Iran (Persia, when they knew it) by way of israel; how much do you know about the kid who rang up your hamburger at the last McDonald's you visited?
The brick walls are made of paper, the "wood" paneling is hardly more substantial, and the tables are Formica. But each is decorated with a silk flower. The pictures on the walls are not of Da Vinci or Columbus, but an earlier hero, Moses. The juke box plays Middle Eastern tunes between the American pop. And people in Adams-morgan costumes fill the Mediterranean blue booths, trading slices of pizza from table to table. You get a lot of color, not to mention a lot of food for your money.
The food comes from a closet-size kitchen equipped with one small stove, a couple of pizza ovens and stacks of aluminum foil pans, and the routine is this: every order of spaghetti, ravioli or fettuccine is boiled to order -- none of that precooked pasta that too many restaurants have succumbed to. And the sauce is dished up from the several simmering pots on the stove. For the casseroles -- lasagne, manicotti and the like -- the ingredients are arranged in a foil pan, sauce ladled over and a thick layer of cheese placed on top, the whole then whipped into the pizza oven for a few minutes. The food is cooked to order, in plentified portions, and served hot.
This is not exquisite food, but it is good, hearty, home style food. The tomato sauce has chunks of tomato. The pasta comes from boxes, but is a good branch and cook al dente. The spaghetti with clams uses canned clams, but the garlic is properly browned so that it is milked to the taste and crisp on the tongue. And the meatballs are unique, fat and light and fluffy, more the texture of Middle Eastern than Italian meatballs. Lasagna is especially good, its noodles light and its filling oozing cheese. The ravioli have a chewy homemade texture with plenty of meat filing.
Nice to know but not remarkable until you take into consideration the price. Most spaghetti dishes are $3.50, and children's portions (enough for growing children) are $1.95. Lasagna or manicotti with sausage or meatballs are $4.95. And most suprising, the veal dishes -- milanaise or permigiana -- are less than $5. That's for real veal, cut thick enough to allow some bite, not baby beef or chopped and reformed ""veal cutlet.'' It is, to be sure, heavy on the breading and deep-fried, but it is nevertheless a bargain price for veal of such quality. Chicken parmigiana or milanaie is slightly less expensive and very nicely cooked; both come with a hefty order of spaghetti on the side.
This is not where you would go for a meal of many courses; the appetizers are negligible, the vegetable side dishes are a waste of time and the dessert is either indifferent multicolored ice cream called spumoni or fair cheesecake. And the pizza is just average, its dough crackery rather than chewy and yeasty. The menu lists shrimp dishes at a top price of $7.25, but they haven't been available anyway. The restaurantant is, as it advertises, primarily a spaghetti house (tomato sauce, meat sauce, marinara, clams, sausage, butter, garlic and oil, anchovies, meatballs, mushrooms) with, for variety, fettucine alfredo that tastes like mama's noodles and cheese. Even with the limited menu, however, there is something for everyone, from a single bowl of red-sauced noodles to proper veal with a bottle of $8.50 beaujolais. End with one of this city's last 45-cent cups of coffee, then wander down the street for ice cream. And if Adams-Morgan is too far from your neighborhood, look around close to home for a kitchen and dining room staffed by mom and pop, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles, even best friends -- a staff who know each other and consider part of their job to get to know you. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By Robyn Johnson-Ross
Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday, Saturday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday. Mc. V. Reservations not necessary. Street parking. Prices: Sandwiches $2.50 to $2.75. Main courses $2.75 to $6.75. Pizzas $2.50 to $7.25.