Escape to New York II -- Washington could learn a lot about Italian restaurants from New York. Il Nido, 251 E. 53rd St., represents the old guard: it is in the mode of Cantina d'Italia, a slightly hokey cave with flowers so bright and splashy they look as if they are trying to be artificial. The food is not always but certainly can be wonderful -- dreamy pesto on hair-thin capelli d'angelo or supple salmon in a darkly rich and wonderful barolo sauce. But the ravioli were stolidly bland, and a veal chop, stuffed with outstanding prosciutto and cheese, was pounded beyond its prime texture. At its best and friendliest, though, Il Nido is memorable, particularly if you end with the fashionable dessert, tirami su' -- a creamy fluff of mascarpone custard over liqueur-drenched cake, garnished with chocolate.
The tirami su' is even better -- more like a layer cake -- at Positano, 250 Park Ave. South, where the dining room is as refreshing as the seaside its name evokes. Here the menu is more inventive and the antipasto is a delicious nibbling of stellar cheeses (real parmesan and homemade mozzarella stuffed with tomato) with bits of marinated porcini, fine cold meats and such. The pasta can be as refreshing as spring -- linguine tossed with pancetta, grilled escarole and intense black olives, for instance. I was disappointed in the overgrilled red snapper, though it could have been saved if the lightly vinegared mint sauce had permeated it more. But Positano's cheerful, intelligent service and lovely dining room are drawing cards, and the cooking is hitting a lot of high notes.