PRIMI PIATTI -- 2013 I St. NW. 223-3600. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, DC, MC, V. Reservations accepted for lunch between 11:30 a.m. and noon, for dinner between 5:30 and 6:45 p.m. No separate non-smoking section. Pipes and cigars not permitted. Prices: appetizers $3.95 to $4.95, lunch entrees $6.95 to $12.95, dinner entrees $6.95 to $13.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $25 to $40 per person.
When Galileo first opened, I wished Washington had more such restaurants. And now it does, thanks to Galileo itself. Primi Piatti is its offspring, one that has immediately outgrown its parent. Unlike the low-ceilinged, closely packed downstairs quarters of Galileo, Primi Piatti is a big, high, open space with mirrored walls that make it look immense. The pink and green columns and arches in the postmodern style turn it into a whimsical version of something you should have seen on a tour of Rome. And the bustle of the open kitchen with its rotisserie, grill and wood-burning pizza oven is bound to spark thoughts of a Florentine trattoria.
The smells of the restaurant are Italian, and the spirit and energy are the best Italy can offer. The waiters may serve you on the run, but it's with a European flair and grace that comes only with experience.
On pleasant days the front of the restaurant opens to a sidewalk cafe'. A few steps inside is a display of marinated vegetables and fish destined for the antipasto. And all around there are people: customers lingering at the bar while waiting for a table, waiters bustling between tables with baskets of bread and, in back, a young pizza-maker flipping dough, shoveling it in and out of the brick-walled oven and nibbling bits of it in between. Chef and co-owner Roberto Donna waves to friends and shifts his attention from grill to rotisserie to the audience of this hit show.
Even if you have had to wait for a table, which is pretty likely since the restaurant takes no dinner reservations after 6:45, forgiveness comes with the basket of bread -- thick, coarse, homemade bread pink with tomato or studded with black olives, walnuts or rosemary. Like the rest of the food, the breads are earthy, straightforward and very Italian.
The menu limits choices to antipasti, pastas, soups, pizzas and meats or seafoods from the wood-burning grill or rotisserie. It is, after all, a large-scale cafe', where ordering just a pasta or even dessert and espresso is as acceptable as constructing a three-course dinner.
The wine list is nearly all Italian, with most of the choices less than $15. Food prices are reasonable, too, with grilled foods averaging $13 at lunch and dinner, and pizzas about $8. But still the bill adds up; with bottled water, antipasto and salads, a meal can cost $30 or $40 per person.
Primi Piatti is a phenomenon not to be explained in culinary terms. Every time I have heard people talking about it, they have professed to love it. But when they have discussed the meal in its parts, they have had plenty of complaints. I, too, found the parts considerably less than the whole. The antipasti have included some seriously oversalted dishes and others that were underseasoned. Pastas have sometimes been too bland and too dry in their spare Italian style, and have been so al dente that they crunched. Pizzas have sometimes oozed oil, grilled meats have been gray and bereft of any identifiable seasoning, and the rotisserie meats have been repeatedly juiceless, overcooked and flavorless. Furthermore, the dining room is as noisy as a Roman traffic jam.
But it is all so Italian. The Italians always overcook their fowl and lamb. At Primi Piatti, even the flaws are authentic.
Besides, there are so many more things that go right. At the antipasto display, I have found excellent, quartered fresh artichokes, nearly melted saute'ed eggplant slices, tiny cauliflower with bits of pungent black olives, onions roasted in coals, fried fresh sardines and wonderful deep-fried eggs with woodsy bits of fried onion. While pastas have sometimes tasted little of their ham, gorgonzola or asparagus flavorings, most times they have been delicious. Wiry noodles -- spinach green, tomato pink or saffron gold -- have been cooked al dente. Sauces have clung and moistened, just enough. And when the sauces have been on track, they have been sensational, as with fleshy wild mushrooms in a mellow tomato cream, or pale green asparagus cream on pink pasta squares. In any case, the menu changes frequently, so there are always discoveries to be made.
Pizzas are cooked in a wood-burning oven, which is only one of the reasons they taste so authentic. The crust is thin, with the full flavor of well-made bread dough. Toppings are not what one would expect from either an Italian-American restaurant (no pepperoni, tomatoes and cheese) or a "new American" one (no smoked salmon and caviar). Instead, they are much the same as the pasta sauces (gorgonzola and prosciutto) or the antipasti (spinach, garlic and olive oil; escarole with pine nuts). If you think of them as bread with sauce or as hot, open- faced sandwiches, you will get the idea.
Meat dishes are those most likely to be a letdown, and I wouldn't bother to try the rotisserie meats again after a progression of dry lamb, pork saved only by its crusty edges, shriveled chicken and dreary quail. The hickory-grilled meats are better risks, and the best of those is sausage. While the wood fire dried out veal chops to their disadvantage, it extracted the greasiness from wonderful fennel-and-garlic-scented sausage, which was cooked until its skin had grown crunchy. The second best of the grilled dishes I have tried was the chicken breast: butterflied, crisp-skinned and faintly smoky. Fish are not as frequently flawed as the meats, but be warned that they are plain fare. And grilled shrimp had surprisingly little taste, given that they were fresh.
With several of the meat dishes comes grilled polenta. It, too, ranges from dry to creamy, depending on the day. Other main dishes are accompanied by a few slices of grilled eggplant or zucchini, a boiled potato or maybe a couple of asparagus spears -- more garnishes than a balance to the meat. But the portions are hefty, and if you still have some appetite left, you can be grateful for the chance to eat more of that terrific bread.
Or save room for dessert. The most beautiful is berries, spread out on a plate studded with mint leaves and accompanied by a tiny pitcher of heavy cream or custard sauce. The ice creams are smooth and dense, perfumed with liqueurs. And there are more complicated options: a deceptively light and airy tirami su, which is mascarpone cheese, cream and a bit of chocolate whipped to eclipse a bed of macerated cake bits. A fudgy slice of "chocolate salami" is even richer. And as one would expect at Primi Piatti, the espresso is the real thing, half a demitasse of midnight-colored liquid just short of silt.
This is food for purists, for people who like Italian food for its fresh, simple character, its lack of flossiness. It is certainly not for those who think of Italian food as something like Mexican food without the chilies. Just as Galileo has its detractors, who wonder what all the shouting is about, and its diehard fans, who would relish even Roberto Donna's grilled Italian shoes, Primi Piatti will be controversial. It will be inconsistent. It is likely to be lacking in humility and to show more temperament to its customers than it hopes to do. Still, it will be very Italian. ::