2100 P St. NW. 296-1142. Open: Monday through Friday for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for appetizers 2:30 to 5 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Saturday 5:30 to midnight. Closed Sunday. AE, V, MC, DC, CB. Reservations suggested.
Prices: Lunch appetizers average $4, entrees $5.15 to $9.95; dinner entrees $7.95 to $12.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $30 a person.
DONNA ADELE AND GALILEO are generations apart, though they are only down the block from each other. Both are new Italian restaurants with environments of particular charm and menus that have broken from the common mold. The tale is told, though, in the kitchen. And Donna Adele's could use some rewriting.
Donna Adele is a restaurant you want to like. Its outdoor terrace is compelling, with glass walls and roof that can retract in comfortable weather. Inside, the restaurant is no less appealing, from the Art Deco etched glass doors to the burgundy, pink and gray dining room. This is a restaurant that Washingtonians, in their self-deprecation, say looks like a New York restaurant.
The service is somewhat quirky -- always pleasant and willing, but not always informed. One waiter volunteered that he didn't know anything about the wines and didn't know anyone else there who did. A waitress at lunch couldn't pronounce the specials, so she had to spell them: T-r-o-u-t.
The menu, however, is quite savvy. It lists such departures from routine as stuffed vegetables, carpaccio, squid in red wine sauce and focaccia as appetizers. Pizzas can be ordered with 20 different toppings, from blue cheese to pineapple, or with artichokes, wild mushrooms and ham combined. The pastas, nearly a dozen, include spaghetti cooked in a paper bag, large stuffed pansotti with walnut sauce and two kinds of gnocchi. While the entrees are ore predictable, they include, among the dozen or so, a tenderloin "surrounded by spinach souffl,e wrapped in pasta," hare cooked country style and swordfish with tuna sauce. Desserts range from souffl,es to pastries to the stylish tirami su, a variation of trifle or zuppa inglese made with mascarpone cheese.
What's on the plate, though, not only lacks sophistication but falls short of even good sense. In fact, in several visits including samples of nearly two dozen dishes, I found one that was really delicious, a couple that were rather good and no other that was more than mediocre.
You'd think that, being right in the middle of a pizza rage, a new Italian restaurant would at least do a good job of that. But no, Donna Adele's crust was crackery, its tomato sauce pasty and even with a plentiful ooze of cheese it tasted of little other than salt. The toppings I tasted were all right, but it is no great art to buy decent capacola.
Pastas served Donna Adele's reputation no better. Gnocchi were gummy, and except for the pleasant addition of fresh sage leaves, the Piemontese version was bland cream sauce; the sage leaves had not done their work of imparting any flavor to the whole. Tortellini were the best of the lot, since they had a spicy meat filling that overcame the indifference of the cream sauce. But Pasta All'Adele was not what anyone would want as a namesake; it was big macaroni in a wishy-washy pasty tomato sauce with no evidence of the salmon the menu promised. The pansotti with walnut sauce benefited from the bit of cheese and walnut flavor, but a whole plateful would undoubtedly prove boring. What's worse, accompanying the entrees are plates of pasta in assorted colors -- orange, green, yellow -- that have been in odd bits as if they were mixed leftovers, in a sticky sauce the color of American cheese.
It was a relief to find the squid in red wine sauce among the appetizers. The squid were tender, and the wine sauce was light in texture and rich in flavor imparted from finely minced vegetables and a hefty dose of hot pepper. Carpaccio was not cut as thin as that raw tenderloin appetizer should be, but it was well trimmed, the meat tasted fresh, and its accompanying olive oil, capers and chunk of parmesan served it well. That was in contrast to stuffed vegetables -- hunks of soft zucchini that were squishy in a pool of butter and stuffed with a zestless spinach-meat paste.
Even the house salad missed the boat, though it was obviously an attempt at art. A big plate of iceberg lettuce was backdrop for precisely arranged carrot strips, cucumber slices and whole slices of onion that wound up looking pretty silly.
As for main dishes, sole with lemon, wine and garlic tasted overwhelmingly but not unpleasantly of lemon, and the batter on the sole was eggy and lacy. A satisfactory dish. The
batter was also crisp on the
fried seafoods, but the two
shrimp, two smelts and plateful of squid might have been
insufficient if they hadn't
been so drenched in stale-
tasting oil that we weren't inclined to eat them anyway.
The other fish dish, the
swordfish, started with nice fresh fish, but its odd beige sauce tasted more like a mushroom gravy for meat than an appropriate moistener for fish.
As for the meats, a veal chop was insufficiently trimmed and excessively breaded. Nothing special there. And tenderloin in crust was indeed tender and its crust was properly thin and crisp, but the meat tasted steamed and the "spinach souffl,e" was mere dabs of onion-flavored spinach.
Dessert, one might best say, is in keeping with the rest: It doesn't live up to its promise. The tirami su was gummy and lumpy, cloyingly sweet. There seemed little point in going further, particularly since the espresso machine was broken on two visits.
It is incomprehensible to me that a restaurateur would devote such taste and imagination to the environment and to the interesting menu, but would forget to attend to the cooking.