PAOLO'S -- 1303 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 333-7353. Open: Monday hrough Thursday 11:30 to 2 a.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 to 3 a.m., Sunday 11 to 2 a.m. Reservations accepted for parties of eight or more. AE, DC, MC, V. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $4.95 to $7.95, entrees $5.95 to $14.95. Full meal with wine, tax and tip about $25 to $35 per person.
This year, pizza is Italian again. The "new American" pizza rolled through Washington in the past couple of years, mating smoked salmon and goat cheese with refined golden crusts. In this season's new restaurants, pizza is still a star, cooking it in a wood-burning oven has become commonplace, and the toppings still include smoked salmon and goat cheese. But the accent, once again, is Italian.
Primi Piatti started to turn the tide, with its pizza toppings so Italian as to seem exotic. Now Paolo's follows, mezzo- Italian, mezzo-Georgetown. Its display table of mix-and-match ingredients arrayed in front of its handsome white wood-burning pizza oven includes smoked salmon, goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. But there are also plum tomatoes, classic red sauce flecked with green herbs, Italian sausage, mozzarella and spinach scented with Strega. The emphasis leans toward tradition.
Paolo's pastas reinforce this trend and include the classic bolognese, carbonara and grilled fennel sausage with marinara sauce, along with combinations of shiitake mushrooms, leeks and oysters that an Italian would immediately recognize as American food.
The half-and-half mixed marriage continues: traditional minestrone, mussels marinara, fried calamari and carpaccio among the appetizers, along with baked goat cheese and caesar salad. Traditional shrimp dishes -- scampi style or fra diavolo -- are listed among the entrees, as well as specials such as grilled mako shark with red pepper beurre blanc. From the first taste of Paolo's -- which is wonderful homemade bread sticks with tapenade brought to the table when you are seated -- this cooking is a hybrid. The seeded bread sticks are authentic but the tapenade is a modernized (and delicious) version of this Mediterranean olive spread, made with green olives, chickpeas and roasted red peppers.
And the atmosphere is pure American. This beautiful dining room, with light, glowing wood in a red-gold hue and leaded-glass mirrors, throbs like a disco even without music. Everything is bright and informal. Tables are crowded. Surfaces are shiny and hard, reflecting light as well as sound. The open kitchen looks like the home of a baseball team, not just because all the cooks wear Paolo's baseball caps, but because their fast teamwork has the energy and casual mood of an exhibition game. The waiters are terrific -- fast and funny and very attentive -- in a totally American style ("Hi, my name is . . ."). Paolo's has flair in all its parts, and the kind of open good nature the world associates with Americans. It is also as quietly relaxing as the Smithsonian Metro station after the July 4 fireworks. This is a pulsating restaurant.
If you are prepared for that, you can focus on noticing why: Not only is Paolo's a splash of a dining room, but it also has some very good food at definitely friendly prices.
Pizzas are $6 to $10, but since their best feature is their crust, you might as well enjoy them in the $6 versions. That crust is a classic of thin, crunchy, chewy dough with an innate yeasty flavor and smoky savor added by the wood oven. The toppings support its quality rather than add much on their own.
Pastas show an even wider spread, from $7.25 to twice that, and range from delicate angel hair with seafood in white wine sauce to tingling combinations of nic oise olives, capers, chunks of roasted garlic, tomato and that superb Italian bacon called pancetta.
Tradition is bent with lasagne in a creamy ooze of ricotta and pesto, and with carbonara that has added gorgonzola and sage to pancetta and garlic cream. Even I, a carbonara purist, approved once I tasted it. And a lunch special one day that teamed clams, mussels and squid with sausage in a powerful tomato sauce over pasta was irresistible except for chewy, overcooked squid.
Seafood has otherwise been treated with care, mussels and clams lightly cooked and fresh-tasting, jumbo shrimp cooked gently.
In fact, I've had few serious complaints about the food at Paolo's. This is not cooking of great finesse, but it is simple food with a lot of zest. Chicken breast is grilled to a crisp and juicy stage and dosed with balsamic vinegar as well as mushrooms, peppers and sun-dried tomatoes. Those shrimp, cooked scampi style, are grilled under a hail of garlic and herbs. Sure, the seafood tastes are sometimes hidden under all those generous seasonings, the fragile flavor of carpaccio is lost in too strong a vinaigrette, and smoked salmon is irrelevant on a pizza with four cheeses and roasted red peppers as well as thyme. This is a pizza-parlor palate at work.
It suits. And the price is right. A couple at lunch can feel awfully good after an antipasto salad of salami, mortadella, provolone, very white and fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, peppers, marinated mushrooms and olives in a big bowl of romaine and arugula, followed by a crusty pizza to share. And they feel even better paying less than $25, with dessert and tip.
Paolo's does mass cooking of nice ingredients at sensible prices. And its wines are priced to match, most less than $16 a bottle.
You've got to like noise and bustle to put up with Paolo's, and you have to be willing to wait in line. If you sit in the front of the restaurant you have to feel comfortable perched on high stools, and even in the back you have to juggle the space at minuscule tables. If you do, you'll find Paolo's an Italian restaurant that shines in its price range. ::