Hours: Open for lunch Mondays only 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., for dinner Tuesday through Sunday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations suggested. Prices: Most dinner appetizers about $5, entrees $6 to $12. Complete dinner with house wine, tax and tip about $18 to $29 per person. AE, MC, V.
Remember those awful Italian restaurants in the suburbs back in the '50s and '60s? Dinner in one of those heartburn havens generally meant a mound of pasta mush (or maybe a piece of pounded, breaded meat) buried under a brownish sludge of tomato sauce so acidic it could etch glass. (There are still plenty of those places scattered around the Beltway. You know who you are.)
Things are a lot better now. In this age of culinary enlightenment, the term "cheap Italian restaurant" is no longer a slur. More and more customers know the difference between agnolotti and Pavarotti, and more and more restaurants are responding with authentic Italian cooking.
Giuseppe's, which opened in October, seems to have one foot planted in each era. There's some fine cooking here -- a few items are outstanding, in fact -- and there are some nice touches that show the management cares about good food: homemade bread sticks, very good salads with the entrees, cheese grated onto the pastas at the table, gelato, complimentary sorbetto between courses, decaffeinated espresso and cappuccino. Lovable. Not so lovable, though, are some dishes that taste like the '50s warmed over. Knowing which ones are which is the key to getting a good meal here. (One part you're sure to enjoy is the check -- most of the prices are modest, and the portions are generous.)
The menu is fairly restricted, with entrees limited to fresh pastas (made elsewhere), some chicken and veal dishes, mussels and shrimp, and pizza (including a few unusual varieties). The wine list isn't very extensive either: besides the house carafes, there are a half-dozen or so Italian choices at a standard price of $10.95 per bottle.
The place has an unremarkable look -- big, softly lighted, plainly furnished. Service? Most of the waitresses don't know much about the food, but they're quick, accommodating and unfailingly friendly.
The best appetizer in the house may be Italy's answer to blintzes: Mozzarella al Eduardo, a light, creamy cheese enclosed in a crackly, airy-textured puff pastry with a fruity marinara sauce to spoon on top. Other worthwhile appetizers: fine saut,eed mushrooms, firm and snowy white, done with just butter, garlic and parsley. And an equally good cold mushroom salad, nicely vinegary. Or a generous platter of mussels, fresh and plump, cooked in a simple white wine-lemon-garlic sauce. "Meatballs in a basket," on the other hand, are salty, dense little lumps, best avoided.
Two soups are available, both made with rather listless chicken broth but both decent nonetheless: stracciatella (Italy's answer to egg-drop soup) and minestrone, with lively vegetables and without the commonly used tomato base.
There are 16 pasta dishes, some very good. All have nicely firm pasta, although nearly all suffer from an overgenerous hand on the sauce ladle. A tasty best buy at $6.50 is fettuccine served with two fine, fat Italian sausages, properly peppery and laced with fennel. Fettuccine alla zingara is the best flavored of the tomato sauces, robust with minced garlic, black olives and oregano. The pesto sauce is first class, with plenty of fresh basil and good olive oil that is sparingly applied. It's available with excellent tortellini, chewy and with a flavorful meat-and-cheese filling. Gnocchi, which can be lead sinkers in some restaurants, are admirably light here, and the ravioli are excellent -- big and chewy, with a fluffy cheese filling that has real flavor. Among the bummers are fettuccine bolognese and Alfredo, both suffering from blandness (many places overdo the nutmeg in the Alfredo sauce, but at Giuseppe's they seem to have forgotten it), and fettuccine arrabbiata, whose only discernible flavor is hot pepper. The lasagna is well prepared, with the pasta, cheese and meat retaining separate flavors and textures, and without the gooeyness that often afflicts this dish. The eggplant alla parmigiana, too, is a fine rendition -- firm, thick-sliced eggplant, lightly breaded and fried, served with a bit of ricotta and a fruity tomato sauce.
If you're a pizza pilgrim who searches the wilds of Maryland for pizza with a New York-style crust, you probably won't be smitten by what's served at Giuseppe's. But compared with most of what passes for pizza in these parts, it isn't bad. Surprisingly, the white pizza is best here, with lots of fresh garlic and oregano and a good fontina eese. The various red pizzas suffer from tinny-tasting, acidic tomatoes -- the best of the reds is the one with four kinds of cheese.
Seafood advice is simple: aim for the mussels, which are excellent, cheap and generously portioned, and avoid the shrimp, which are long on price but short on flavor and succulence. The advice on chicken and veal is even simpler: don't order them. Both reminded us of the '50s -- dry, flavorless, heavily breaded cutlets, almost indistinguishable from each other.
The menu's dichotomies pop up again when it's time for dessert. Irresistible gelato (from Mio Gelato in Georgetown) shares space on the menu with one of those waxy rum cakes that taste more like chemicals than rum. Among the choices between those two extremes is a passable cannoli that could be vastly improved by the addition of some cinnamon and the subtraction of some sugar.
Giuseppe's menu is narrow, and after you've weeded out the shrimp, chicken and veal dishes, it's narrower still. But if you choose carefully fro what remains, you can eat remarkably well here at a fair price. Just be sure to stay in the 1980s.