THIS IS A TERRIFIC RESTAURANT that a lot of people are going to hate.
Let's start with the praise, for the birth of a good pizza in Washington is worth cheering. Cafe Petitto serves very good -- and quite unusual -- pizza. Its crust is fried on the bottom (Calabrese style, says the menu), adding a nice crunchiness to the fine chewy, yeasty dough, and its base is chunky Italian plum tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and whole leaves of fresh basil (the restaurant isn't old enough for us to know what they'll do about fresh basil in the winter). This basic pizza is typically Italian rather than typically American -- and it is just large enough to cover a dinner plate and serve one as main course, two as appetizer.
The 30 optional pizza toppings include some that are quite wonderful (and all that are quite expensive; ranging from $1.25 to $2.50 each, they can easily double the price of the pizza). There is the usual bacon, pepperoni, salami and sausage (homemade, hot and rather good) and also pancetta, that intense Italian bacon. As for cheeses, you can order creamy fresh mozzarella or smoked mozzarella, ricotta, gorgonzola, fontina or bel paese -- for pizzas with a new tang. The vegetable options include fresh or sun-dried tomatoes, unctuous slices of eggplant, even spinach or whole mushrooms (which are tiny and tasteless); and there are canned fish toppings such as mussels, baby clams, tuna and sardines. Some days the pizza may be ordered with pesto, or with bell peppers in several colors, or some zippy combination the chef has dreamed up.
The two other reasons to tout Caf,e Petitto are the hoagies and the antipasto bar. These hoagies are served on serious bread -- crusty, chewy rolls that are worthwhile in their own right. And while the cold-cut hoagie could use more ham and less mortadella to satisfy me, and some hot peppers to satisfy most people, it is a hoagie that could help pacify the homesickness of a Philadelphian: plenty of meat and cheese, and nothing but real Italian cold cuts -- prosciutto, genoa salami, capacola, mortadella -- with a dash of Italian dressing. And when it is packed for carryout, the bread is protected from the ooze by a layer of plastic so you can slide it out when you are ready to eat. Nice touch. The other hoagies are steak with onions, peppers and cheese -- decent enough, meat balls, and that good homemade sausage with peppers, onions and tomatoes, probably the best of the sandwiches. They all come with a fresh green bean salad that is a generous idea but the beans were tough and stringy, as well as gritty with dried herbs.
Even more interesting is the antipasto. It is a setup like a salad bar, but here the sneeze guard is stained glass, and the assorted dishes are prettily arranged so that it is a fetching buffet. While the enormous variety includes some duds, there are some delicious surprises -- saut,eed banana peppers, a kind of crustless quiche densely packed with bits of meat and vegetables, marinated artichoke hearts with some firmness to them, superb tomato-basil salad, eggplant slices, marinated red and yellow peppers, creamy egg salad and fresh-tasting potato salad, sometimes fresh mussels and other times canned ones, perhaps some marinated fish fillets. In all, you could construct a marvelous array except for two problems: First, the plates are so small that you either mush everything together and let the sauces run into each other, or arrange a measly portion that allows you to taste few of the options. Second, the $5.95 price includes only one plateful, so if you find something unexpectedly delicious you can't try another dab of it, and if you arrange your choices sensibly so they don't run together you will get very little for your money. The solution? Bigger plates, two visits, whatever. It is a shame for such a delightful idea to be spoiled by the mechanics.
There are other appetizers at Caf,e Petitto, a standard array of mixed cold cuts and a couple of salads including a gorgeous one of thickly sliced ripe tomatoes, mozzarella and whole basil leaves. And there is a soup of the day, but the day I inquired, cold cream of celery sounded less than appetizing.
And there are other main dishes on the daily menu, usually pastas and often a seafood salad. At $6 to $7 the pastas
would be good value, except that
the ones I tried were dreary at
any price. I found penne,
rigatoni and the like swamped
with bland cream -- even the
gorgonzola sauce had little
definable flavor -- and an insufficiency of sausage bits or scallion
bits or whatever.
Caf,e Petitto fashions some very nice asides. The garlic bread is crusted with plenty of good olive oil, freshly grated parmesan and cracked black pepper. Or you can have that wonderful chewy, crusty bread rubbed with olive oil and topped with fresh tomato. Desserts include excellent tortoni topped with sweet crunchy macaroon bits -- as high a quality as tortoni achieves in this town. Then there are various espresso and cappuccino combinations with liqueur and whipped cream. And the wine list, though short, is appropriate and reasonably priced. Most of the bottles, including the Corvo, are $11 to $12, which is less than usual in Washington.
Caf,e Petitto is casual and simple -- no tablecloths, a bare tile floor and a noisy clattery echo. But it is simplicity with panache, with whimsical decorative touches such as Art Deco wall lamps and tintypes on the walls. And the service is breezy and pleasant, despite the strictness of the house rules.
With a little fine tuning, Caf,e Petitto could win over even the disgruntled, for already there is a lot to like. -- Phyllis C. Richman
The Restaurant Rained on Her Parade -- Umbrellas at outdoor caf,es offer some relief to steamy Washington summer dining, but when they are removed before the sun goes down, more than the pavement can get hot. Such was the case with one diner eating outside at the Park Place Caf,e at 5 p.m. in 90-degree weather, who protested when her waiter removed the table's umbrella. The waiter checked, but returned to report that 5 p.m. is the time the umbrellas are taken down, regardless. According to Don Percy, general manager of the restaurant, the umbrellas are taken down at that time so passersby can see the restaurant's front window insignia, but added that the incident "never should have happened" and that special requests should be honored.