Open Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. Reservations required. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Prices: At lunch appetizers $3.50 to $8, pastas $9.50, main dishes about $9 to $11.50; at dinner appetizers $3.75 to $8.50, pastas $10.50 to $13, main courses $12.50 to $21.
The restaurants of Washington have this year learned the meaning of recession, and even those that have always been full have found what it is like to see empty tables. It is a time of reevaluation and revamping in the restaurant business.
Romeo and Juliet last year introduced a new, more extensive menu, one with prices higher than ever. Just to begin with, it featured more than 20 appetizers and 10 pastas, which ranged from agnolotti to risotto, and topped the list with penne in a cream sauce with Petrossian caviar and vodka for $22.
It didn't work.
This year Romeo and Juliet has cut back. Its 11 appetizers and its eight pastas have been reduced in price; that pasta with caviar appears only as a daily special and no longer mentions Petrossian as its brand; its price is now $13. The veal dishes that once were $19 to $20 are now $16.50 to $17.50, and there is no quail nor hare nor rack of lamb. Furthermore, Romeo and Juliet stays open all afternoon and offers its lunch menu--with lunch prices--until 6:30.
All this brings Romeo and Juliet down a peg to being just very expensive. But it is a start, and the restaurant is all the better for these modifications.
Romeo and Juliet has always had a lot going for it: prominent location, attractive dining room, a kitchen that could produce excellent food. It still has those attributes, plus a welcome touch of humility. Of late I have found attentiveness and graciousness where once I found snobbery and arrogance. The overblown dining room pyrotechnics have been reduced to more sensible service. The aim now seems more to please than impress.
The dining room is attractive without drawing particular notice. Black leather banquettes and white cloths, colorful modern art and modest flowers in porcelain vases make a room of comfort without showiness.
Small but crucial attentions that start with the valet parking continue to the offering of a plate of fried zucchini with drinks--and go too far with white-wine glasses so iced that your fingers stick to them.
Appetizers are a mixed lot at Romeo and Juliet. The choices are largely mundane: oysters, p.at,e, prosciutto and melon, smoked salmon, snails; there are also mussels, scallops and shrimp preparations and several soups, plus the ubiquitous fried mozzarella. I have tried a seafood salad that was generous but dull and watery, tasting of little but lemon; and a soup named after the restaurant that should have been stripped of the honor, for its escarole and potatoes were mushy, its broth wan. On the other hand, the menu sometimes lists a grilled smoked mozzarella, which beats baked brie in my book; the creamy, melting slices of cheese are doubly smoky, from the cheese itself and then from the grilling.
The wise course is to start right in with pastas, and Romeo and Juliet wisely allows diners to order a half-portion as an appetizer (and charges half-price rather than some larger proportion, as some restaurants are inclined to do). Though pastas are expensive--most full portions are $10.50--they are often the kitchen's best effort. Linguine with clams in a red sauce had tiny, sweetly fresh clams in the shell and more of them laced through the light and zesty tomato sauce. Penne in caviar sauce, like the linguine, was cooked al dente, and the combination of cream and plentiful caviar was sumptuous. Tortellini were excellent, having the added advantage of homemade egg and spinach dough. The alternating colors were attractive, the meat filling highly seasoned to carry the flavor through the thick, creamy cheese sauce. My only disappointment with the pastas was paglia e fieno "Vlastimil Koubek," thin and wiry homemade white and green noodles in a delicate sauce of mascarpone cheese with bits of ham and peas. The sauce was subtle, its texture just thick enough to coat the noodles, but the peas were either canned or vastly overcooked and permeated the dish with a long-cooked vegetable flavor.
Among the fish dishes are three of shrimp, and here the kitchen faltered seriously. Scampi remolata boasts of its special house sauce, which is nothing but oversalted seasoned mayonnaise as a dip for five large deep-fried shrimp in a light batter. Nothing special, especially for $17. The same large shrimp saut,eed with scallops in white wine with almonds was even less satisfactory; the tiny scallops were cooked until their sweetness turned to fishiness, and the shrimp were also too firm to enhance them. Veal dishes--priced at $15 to $16.50--were generally better, and scaloppine topped with a dice of chicken livers, mushrooms and shallots in a marsala sauce illustrated one of the highlights of Italian cooking, the sweet-sour counterpoint of fortified wine with slices of olives, sharpened by the shallots and smoothed by the livers just cooked through. Roast veal, a special one night, proved the Italian genius for simplicity: slightly rosy veal in light pan juices with waftings of herb and a slightly earthy mushroom aroma. The least expensive main dish was one of the most pleasing: boneless chicken breast with eggplant under a blanket of mozzarella with a light tomato sauce was just plain good.
Romeo and Juliet does well with simple dishes, particularly with tomato sauces, which are prepared with a light touch. If the duck with brandy and morels is an indicator, it really slips with heavier dishes. The duck was a disaster of stringy meat under skin that was burned as well as limp and soggy. And its faintly sweet brandy sauce had little flavor.
There is also the artichoke mystery. Saut,eed artichokes are almost never done well in a restaurant, yet here they were fresh artichoke bottoms saut,eed in an eggy batter, really delectable. But another night the artichokes garnishing main dishes were mushy and metallic-tasting, further insulted by creamed spinach that tasted of nothing but overripeness, either of the vegetable or the cream.
Romeo and Juliet has an interesting list of Italian wines, but the prices are deterrents. Among the least expensive are a $10 orvieto and a $16 nebbiolo; the climb from there is steep. Thus a dinner at Romeo and Juliet is still an ambitious expenditure. The dessert cart is a tempting display of rather good and elaborate cakes, a plain and excellent ricotta cheese cake, a disappointing grainy zuccotto and handsome poached and marinated fruits. Traveling from pasta to dessert with wine along the way will run up a bill of $35 to $50 a person.
From a Northern Italian restaurant so plush, so well-located and so expensive, you should expect star performance. And often you get it. But at such prices, even though reduced from last year, Romeo and Juliet is a tightrope act without a net. Occasionally, and fatally, it slips.