Open Tuesday through Friday 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations. Prices: Pastas at dinner average $7, meat and fish courses $10 to $11. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $20.
And now there are two. Caffe Italiano on Connecticut Avenue has spawned Piccola Italia off Wisconsin Avenue; and papa, mama and daughter are shuttling between the two. Mama, it is said, is cooking for both, with the finishing touches added by somebody else in the Macomb Street kitchen. True, the food at both tastes pretty much the same.
But the big draw of Caffe Italiano in its early days was the sense of dropping into an Italian home for dinner and being hovered over by the family. That has been renewed at Piccola Italia. Host and hostess make the rounds, welcoming you into their midst. And the neigborhood has responded to the extent of filling the dining room even on a freezing midweek evening. On weekends this home-away-from-home is even warmer, at least when there is a guitarist in the dining room and dancing downstairs.
Since it is the environment that is crucial at Piccola Italia, we'll get to that first. The entrance makes you look forward to spring; there is room for outdoor tables. Inside are two rooms, lit by swooping and swirling metal chandeliers and decorated with a gallery of paintings more effective for their volume than for their individual artistry. The rough-textured white walls are outlined with decorative plasterwork suggesting columns. White tablecloths on brown ones are centered by a red carnation. Nothing flossy, but plenty of spirit.
The waiters need more practice in grace under fire. They can be extremely suave and helpful, but it is not so automatic that they haven't rushed us or dealt with us abruptly at difficult moments. The host and hostess, on the other hand, seem to glide over any difficulty without faltering.
But a waiter was gracious enough to recommend the mussel soup. And it may be the best dish in the house. At $4.25, it is really sufficient for a meal, or at least ought to be shared. A large white soup bowl is packed with steamed mussels, which are in turn topped with tiny shrimp cooked in garlic and parsley. The mussels are fat and juicy, imbued with garlic, and at the bottom is a wonderful tomato-tinged and garlic- scented broth that has concentrated all those flavors. The rest of the appetizer list is ordinary: three other soups, escargots, a reasonably good fried mozzarella that closely resembles a grilled cheese sandwich but is better, melon with prosciutto, antipasto and a fish salad. As for that fish salad, it is a large plate of crisp cut-up romaine tossed with tiny shrimp and sliced squid, moistened with lemon and oil and enough garlic to make you a pariah. It is refreshing but unexciting. And at $4.95 it, like the $4.50 fried mozzarella, is overpriced.
The best of the pastas are the southern Italian ones, the red-sauced. Those tomato sauces are pungent and sometimes thick enough to nearly hold a spoon upright, and the meat in them is coarsely chopped so you can still recognize it as meat. The white sauces, on the other hand--those such as fettuccine alfredo and tortellini alla panna--are just as thick. And that doesn't work with white sauce. They are bland and sludgy, while the tomato sauces have some life to them. In addition, the agnolotti are heavy and filled with a tasteless spinach stuffing. If you like stuffed noodles, order instead the ravioli, for their meat filling is nicely seasoned.
This is earthbound food, hearty and without a great deal of finesse or subtlety. Portions are large, and something, if not everything, in the meal is likely to be satisfying. Piccola Italia is not the place to splurge on a grand feast. Besides the tomato-sauced pastas or mussel soup, the simplest veal dishes will serve you best. The veal is overpounded, so that sometimes it is uncomfortably close to hamburger. But it is cut thick enough to remain tender after it has been sauteed. You can get it with brandy, wine and cheese sauce accompanied by asparagus and artichokes, or with mushrooms and cognac, spinach and wine, ham and cheese or several other typically Italian dress-ups. Some days it even can be ordered insulated by a layer of diced zucchini and carrots in a thick binding, the whole titled veal primavera. But I would suggest it be ordered alla francaise, just dipped in a light egg batter and saut,eed with a little lemon. A nice, crisp vinegar-dressed romaine salad on the side, some crusty warm Italian bread and a carafe of reasonably decent house white wine (which is better than the red), and there you will have a perfectly nice meal for well under $20, even if you have splurged on the mussel soup.
The menu also has a couple of chicken dishes, eggplant parmesan, osso bucco and sole, trout or scampi. Skip the scampi. They look lovely, each one curled on a slice of tomato. But they are tough and dry, the tomato is unripe and acid, and no one part of the dish is in communication with any other. Also don't bother with the ,a la carte vegetables. Although I have been delighted in the past with Caff,e Italiano's peppers graziella with bread, capers and raisins, here they were bitter and virtually inedible. One day we asked the waiter what vegetables they had. "Broccoli and zucchini," he answered, which confirmed the menu's list. We told him we'd have the zucchini. Without missing a beat, he replied that they were out of zucchini. We tried the broccoli, and wished he'd also told us there was no broccoli either; its only memorable characteristic was sogginess.
But dessert is like a welcome home. Mama's rum cake is not elegant, but a nice home-style yellow cake with chocolate confectioners' sugar icing and whipped cream and just enough rum to not offend the children. Cannoli are also made in-house, and they are flavored with coffee, not oversweetened (which is rare for cannoli) and filled recently enough that the shells are crisp. Furthermore, the coffee is great.
Piccola Italia is moderately fancy, moderately priced, with moderately good food. It all fits together. It's a good place to remember when you are looking for late dinner after the movies have let out along Wisconsin Avenue.