Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 a.m., for dinner Monday through Friday 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. Reservations. AE, MC, V, Choice. Prices: At lunch, entrees range from $3.95 to $5.95. At dinner, appetizers $2.75 to $5.75, pastas $6.95 to $7.50, entrees $8.95 to $13.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $25 a person.
Few settings are more American than a modest little neighborhood Italian restaurant with checkered tablecloths and a voluble host who tells you when the fish isn't fresh enough and that he wants you to have the veal. There is one in every romantic Hollywood movie.
And few amenities are in shorter supply in Washington than neighborhoods with such restaurants. We probably have more Szechuan restaurants now than pasta places, and even Ethiopian restaurants are gaining on the Chinese. Those Italian restaurants we do have often sink into indifference or price themselves right out of the neighborhood, although lately restaurateurs have noticed their empty tables and in some cases reduced pasta prices more in line with the cost of flour and eggs.
Every time a checkered tablecloth or a pasta machine signals a new Italian kitchen, therefore, we hope for that combination of simplicity and honesty that makes us love Italian cooking. Trattoria Alberto revives the faith.
First, it looks right. Blue checkered tablecloths under umbrellas pull you right off the sidewalk on a nice day. Inside, the old brick wall, the older, framed etchings, the tiny baskets of flowers on the table, and the straw-wrapped chianti bottles hanging from the rafters set a mood Hollywood would approve. And there's the ma.itre d', bustling, talkative and jovial, telling you that the wine delivery is tomorrow, but you'll love the Corvo (only $10, as are all the wines on the short list) or his special northern Italian ros,e--and bringing you a taste to prove it. He grimaces when you order the red snapper; if you dare to order it anyway you find it fishy and overcooked, as if he directed the kitchen to prove him right. He steers you to the veal braciole, and sure enough it is milky-pale veal rolled around an aromatic but delicate filling of ham, ground beef and parmesan and moistened with a zesty, personable tomato sauce. He insists on grinding pepper on your pasta, he worries if you aren't eating heartily and he demands you order a replacement when you point out the flaws of that very fish he didn't want you to get in the first place.
In other words, in this moderately priced restaurant--where high-quality veal is priced at $11 for a generous portion, and a careful diner could have spaghetti and a glass of wine for under $10 --somebody cares about how well you are eating.
Don't expect this to be a consistent or outstanding restaurant. It is good. You get your money's worth if you order sensibly. It makes mistakes, and the kitchen can be slow. But it has a personality that overcomes many a flaw, and it is the kind of restaurant that makes you want to return again anyway.
Mostly you would return for the veal and for the tomato sauces, unless you have hit a day when the chef has played too loose with the salt. The kitchen starts with excellent veal and is careful not to cook it into dryness. If the braciole is not on the menu, try the vitello della casa, covered by a nutty cream sauce with thick chunks of mushroom and an undercurrent of brandy. Otherwise, the choices are the usual marsala, piccata, saltimbocca or veal with peppers and tomato sauce. If veal with eggplant is on the menu, it is also worth a try; the eggplant is as juicy as the veal and the tomato-basil sauce doesn't overwhelm the mozzarella topping.
As for pastas, the bolognese sauce is a good, sturdy, meaty one and just right on al dente linguine as a side dish, appetizer or even a whole meal. Rigatoni with broccoli and garlic is not bad, though more greasy than ideal. And if agnolotti are available, this hearty (rather than delicate) version of spinach-ricotta pillows is nicely done.
Now here's what to skip: paglia e fieno alla gorgonzola is the ma.itre d'ho.tel's favorite, but ours was a bland glop of delicate homemade pasta cooked to mush in a barely seasoned cream. The house pesto is gritty and bitter, whether on overcooked scallops as a main course or plump and otherwise delicious cold mussels as an appetizer. Chicken has been overcooked, with Genoa salami as a cheap substitute for prosciutto in the chicken alla romana. Dessert is commercial cannoli, tortoni, spumoni or cheesecake.
That leaves large and carefully cooked shrimp with bacon and garlic as a decent but unexciting appetizer or shrimp with butter and lemon or spiced tomato sauce as a main course. Squid also comes as appetizer or main course. And a chewy but otherwise good mozzarella in carroza is a hefty appetizer to split. Or try a soup, perhaps a richly seasoned, bacon- scented pasta e fagioli. There are the usual other pastas--lasagne, canneloni, fettucine, linguine--"most" of which, as the menu identifies honestly, made daily on the premises.
Trattoria Alberto has what you expect of a neighborhood Italian restaurant: a decently priced bottle of corvo, a hot homemade soup on a cold day or a plate of pasta cooked al dente with a homey and meaty tomato sauce, a filling platter of silky veal and crusty bread to sop up its juices. Dessert is not necessary after such heartiness; a cup of coffee and a friendly goodbye are sufficient finale. In all, you ought to leave saying, "That's Italian."