Open Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday 11:30 a.m. to midnight, Saturday noon to midnight, Sunday (Fairfax only) noon to 10 p.m. MC, V. Prices: Appetizers $1.50 to $4.25, main dishes $4.25 to $11.95. Full dinner with wine or beer, tax and tip about $11 to $22 per person. Beer and wine only.
We've had a nightmare lately in which the English language, in a fit of terminal cuteness, finally recognizes the letter 'n--as in surf 'n turf--as a bona fide word.
We wake up in a sweat just as they're rewriting the world's literature ("War 'n Peace") and redrafting the Constitution ("life, liberty 'n the pursuit of happiness"). So there was understandable dread in our hearts when we thought about eating at (shudder) Pizza 'n Pasta. Our fears, it turned out, were groundless. Except for the name, the three Pizza 'n Pasta restaurants aren't cute at all. No one wears a plastic straw hat or a candy-striped shirt or a garter on his arm, there's no player piano or Dixieland band, and the owners' names are Salvatore and Pasquale Esposito.
Not that the Pizza 'n Pastas are the Italian restaurants you've always been searching for. One taste of the fettucine alla Romano is enough to snuff out that hope. But the price is right, the environment is pleasantly jeans-and-paper-napkinish, the portions are big, some of the items on the menu are very good, and one of them--the pizza in Fairfax--is dynamite. In fact, the Fairfax outlet is superior to the other two in more than just the pizza. Salads are bigger and better, there have been more desserts (and some are better prepared), and prices are a little lower on some items.
Let's begin with the dynamite: the Fairfax location's pizza, which, unlike the others, is baked in a wood-fired oven, directly on lava stone. This pizza, if it were served in New York or Boston, would simply be very good. In the pizza-disadvantaged Washington area, it's nothing short of phenomenal. Let us sing a paean to this pizza, a cantata to its crust: to the thinnest layer of dark-dappled bottom hardness where dough touched hot brick, and to chewy, honest bread above, thickening to a generous, puffy curl at the perimeter. To the inimitable flecks of oven brownness, and the flavor, and those delightful, bulgy air pockets. If you know, love, and pine for the kind of pizza hardly ever experienced in this area, go. But go just to Fairfax--the pizza at the other two locations has a pale, soft dough not much different from the local variety. And order the thin-crusted Neapolitan style: the deep-dish Sicilian is just ordinary. If, on the other hand, you prefer your pizza crust light-colored, soft, sweetish and with lots of shortening, be warned: you might well drive to Fairfax only to wonder what all the fuss is about. Incidentally, the Fairfax location's calzone --pizza dough partially folded in on itself to form a "boat" that encloses tomato, mozzarella, ricotta and a first- class homemade sausage--is an equally superb product of the wood-burning oven, and it's big enough to serve two.
First the good news about the pasta: it's homemade (except for spaghetti), and the red sauces are pleasantly bright and fruity. The bad news: most of it is overcooked most of the time, and the cream sauces, hopelessly gluey to begin with, are applied so heavily that they hide whatever texture is left in the pasta. It's not always overcooked. In five visits to the three locations, we succeeded in getting reasonably chewy pasta twice, but that .400 batting average was achieved only by specifying (and sometimes pleading for) "al dente" when we ordered.
You'll have a better chance for chewiness with the ravioli, which is stuffed with a firm, flavorful, unrunny cheese. Order it with the outstanding homemade sausage--chewy, zippy with pepper, fragrant with fennel and commendably free of excess fat. But the lasagna and manicotti, which are heated and served in metal casseroles, collapse to a shapeless glob on the plate. Gnocchi is livelier and more delicate than most, and served in that reliably good red sauce. Spaghetti carbonara, if you're lucky enough to get it chewy, has plenty of well-drained bacon and a nice, gentle smokiness pervading the pasta.
Mussels and clams are reasonably good, but the seafood standout is the calamari, remarkably tender, sweet and flavorful, and served in a peppery, winy marinara sauce. Veal? A good product, tender, well-trimmed, thick-sliced, unpounded, and served in big portions. The lemon sauce is properly tart, and the marsala sauce, although more timid than the alcoholic zingers at some restaurants, is pleasant enough.
Let's rewind for a moment to the appetizers. Fried zucchini in a tissue-thin batter is first-rate. Curiously, another deep- fried appetizer, mozzarella in carrozza, can be leaden and oily. Minestrone is crammed with reasonably firm pasta, beans, potatoes and carrots.
For dessert, cannoli, tortoni and spumoni are good but commonplace; the dense, robust cheesecake is excellent. The cappuccino pie, a slab of coffee ice cream on a dark chocolate crust, sits in a rich chocolate syrup that's been spiked with strong espresso coffee and topped with a good whipped cream. Delicious. (But less delicious at the Arlington outposts, where there's no whipped cream and the syrup tastes like Hershey's.) Another tempter, not available in Arlington, is semifreddo al caff,e, a wineglassful of ice cream, whipped cream and chocolate sauce over a few ounces of espresso.
Criticisms aside, Pizza 'n Pasta is infinitely better than most other Italian restaurants in its price range. That it's in Fairfax makes it even more a marvel. Give it the support it deserves. But keep pushing for chewy pasta.