The trend has been reversed: Uusually the progression is that downtown restaurants open suburban branches. This time a suburban restaurant chain with three Virginia locations has expanded to the city -- to Georgetown, in fact.
The Italian Oven has brought its wood-burning pizza ovens and yesteryear prices to where Tio Pepe used to serve paella and flamenco music. And if you pick your meal carefully you can eat not only cheaply but well.
The dining room is standard neighorhood-Italian, with red-checked cloths, rough wood and white walls and a bustle of friendly waiters. It looks a dark-timbered, cozy place, as suitable for couples as for families.
The culinary reason for going there is the pizza and calzone. And what makes the pizza worthwhile is its crust, just chewy enough and just yeasty enough, with extra flavor from the faint smoky singeing the wood oven gives it. The crust is thin (too thin, some might say) but it has that elastic quality found in good dough. The pizza comes in authentically Italian variations -- quattro stagioni with quadrants of ham, mushrooms, artichokes and shrimp or puttanesca with black olives, capers and artichokes -- as well as the standard sausage and pepperoni and green peppers. The calzone, which may be the best choice of all, is a whole pizza folded in half to enclose a thick ooze of ricotta, mozzarella, goat cheese, sausage and basil.
But here is my quarrel with the pizza: Its toppings don't serve it well. The tomato sauce is fine, being chunky and rough, light and delicate. But the ''homemade sausage'' turns out to be paper-thin slices of meat with no zest; the artichoke hearts are tinny and mushy; even the mushrooms, though fresh, are dry and without flavor because they are cooked too bare and too briefly. All this would not keep me from ordering pizza at The Italian Oven, but it would caution me to keep it simple.
Since pizzas occupy only a small part of the menu you may be drawn to the 20 pastas -- at very modest prices -- or veal scaloppine, the chicken breast variations, the seafood on linguine, the squid in marinara sauce, the eggplant parmesan or the sausage with peppers. None I've tried would tempt me to return, though they made pleasant enough meals. The veal was decently pale and of a thickness that indicated the chef knew when to stop pounding for tenderness. I had no complaints about the cooking or the marsala sauce, except that I prefer it less sweet. But the veal was a dish such as you might find in many Italian restaurants. Thus it was with the seafood on linguine -- festa del mare -- though the garlic and herbs in the white sauce gave sufficient zest to flavor its linguine boldly and to encourage you to sop up the rest with bread. The pastas are standard choices: spaghetti with meatballs, ravioli with tomato sauce or cream, lasagna, canneloni, manicotti and a few fettuccine variations. There are a few surprises, though, such as fettuccine with walnut cream sauce, and white and green noodles combined with ham and mushrooms. It was disappointing, though, to find in this generally competent restaurant that the spaghetti carbonara was cooked to limpness and flavored with tasteless bacon; in fact, the the whole dish had little flavor, with too much egg and too little cheese. And the side dish of spaghetti that accompanies meat dishes has been similarly mushy, with a thick, acid tomato sauce.
Better than the main dishes have been the appetizers. The fried mozzarella is a rustic version -- two thick slices of bread with melted cheese, anchovy fillets and a pool of garlic-herb butter -- but it is gutsy and savory. And fritto misto for two is lightly fried with little grease clinging to the squid rings and zucchini sticks. Then there are the usual mozzarrella-tomato salad, mussels in red sauce, claims casino and minestrone. The house salad shows particular care, being topped with marinated cooked carrots and dressed with a tangy cream. The wine list, on the other hand, is a mere three bottles long, though they are priced well at less than $10.
The Italian Oven is not going to change the character of dining in Georgetown. It adds, though, another pleasant and decent little eating place to that populous section and brings some pizza that is going to be stiff competition for Geppetto down the street.