AMBASCIATA D'ABRUZZO DI ROMA -- 8701 Ramsey Ave., Silver Spring. 585-0501. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Saturday 5 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $3.50 to $6.95, entrees $5.95 to $8.50; dinner appetizers $2.75 to $4.75, entrees $8 to $14. Complete dinner with wine, tax and tip about $25 to $40 per person. ny self-respecting ad man will tell you that a product with a hard-to-remember, hard-to-say name is dead in the water. Short and punchy is what sells, as in Exxon or Xerox. Enter Ambasciata d'Abruzzo di Roma. Was there ever a restaurant name so tortuous? Can you imagine a moniker like that being chosen by a corporate computer? Of course not, and therein lies the key to this restaurant's quirky charm. It's an amazingly uncompromising offshoot of the original Ambasciata d'Abruzzo (the name means "Embassy of Abruzzo"), a restaurant in Rome that's been serving Abruzzi-style food for the past 40 years.
It's not just the name that's been transplanted intact; the authenticity extends to the menu and the preparation of the dishes. There's the genuine taste of Italy here, and you can have it without an airline ticket or a hotel reservation. The service is Italian style, too, skilled and professional, yet without the friendly presumptuousness we've become accustomed to in this country.
Open just a few months, Ambasciata has a certain tentativeness about it, a sense that change and adjustment are taking place. (There is already butter with the bread, for example.) But that bit Mark and Gail Barnett are free-lance restaurant critics. Phyllis C. Richman is on assignment. of confusion just adds to the adventure. Eating here is so much fun, and most of the food is so good, it's worth a little uncertainty. (Pay no attention to the 1960s-style dining room, with its red Naugahyde and fake ceiling beams -- the magic here is in the food, in not the environment.)
The menu, apparently identical to the Roman version, is in Italian with English translations that are sometimes fractured (as in "hamburg-steek"), sometimes mystifying (as in "freakish salad") and sometimes inaccurate ("beef fillet cooked with green pepper," which turned out to be a gorgeous filet mignon with green peppercorns). A few of the more exotic items (calf's brains, tail) are listed as "unavailable," a category that may grow in deference to what sells in Silver Spring -- but let's hope the compromises don't go too far. As in Italy, the menu shows appetizers (mainly cold seafood and cured meats), "first dishes" (soups and pastas) and "second dishes" (meats and fish). The "first" and "second" dishes are roughly the same size -- one doesn't nibble a pasta and then chow down on meat, which may be why Italian arteries aren't as plugged as ours.
A great way to sample things is to order the "festa," a $29.95-per-person shower of abundance that's one of the best restaurant bargains around. To start things off, the waiter brings a basket of genuine, crusty Italian bread and a full bottle of wine. This isn't an el cheapo jug wine, either. On one visit we had a decent Folinari soave, on another a lovely 1985 Casarsa pinot blanc. Then comes a big bowl of Genoa, Romano, Abruzzi and Calabria salamis, accompanied by a knife and cutting board so you can help yourself, along with a dish of creamy buffalo mozzarella and airy ricotta. Now that's abbondanza.
Appetite sharpened, you're ready for the real antipasti, a series of appetizers that depends on what's available that night. One of the standards is an irresistible bruschetta -- toasted Italian bread topped with olive oil, diced tomato, garlic, fresh basil and red pepper. Beyond that, there may be some beautiful cold mussels and clams, a silky, garlic-laced calamari salad, a fine prosciutto, some bracing marinated mushrooms and pimentos, and impressive tuna and chicken salads. The one bust among the antipasti has been cold fried zucchini with a congealed batter.
With the preliminaries polished off, it's time for three pastas, chosen by the kitchen from the regular menu. (Don't be too compulsive about matching what you're eating to the menu. Since the pastas here range from merely good to heavenly, the best approach is to relax and just let yourself be fed.) Next, the entrees, small but by this time more than adequate portions of roast lamb, veal and pork. These are old-fashioned roasts, the way your mother used to cook them for Sunday dinner. That means forget rare and enjoy long-cooked, meltingly tender meat you can cut with a fork, served in a simple, reduced-stock sauce.
The winding down begins with coffee and your choice of dessert. Opt for the excellent tiramisu, soaked in coffee liqueur, or the authentic zuppa Inglese, slathered with abandon in real whipped cream. (The other cakes are ordinary.) But wait, you're not through. To cap things off, bottles of Galliano, Amaretto and Sambuca liqueurs are set out. Help yourself, if you can.
Should you choose the a la carte route, here are some high points. Both the bean soup and the mussel soup (actually a generous plate of mussels in a fine tomato sauce) are top-notch. Among the pastas, the chewy, homemade ravioli are sublime, as is the Abruzzi-style pasta, studded with mushrooms, peas and bits of sweet sausage. Spaghetti carbonara is loaded with pancetta and just-cooked egg -- wonderful, but so rich it's best for sharing. Cream-sauced pastas (tortellini with cream, for example, or penne with gorgonzola, or fettuccine with porcini mushrooms) are rich but subtle and well balanced. A good meat choice is osso buco -- the veal shank falls off the bone, and the chunky tomato sauce is enlivened with good olive oil. The excellent saltimbocca is also a good choice, as is the veal marsala, with an elegant sauce that, for a change, isn't oversweet and doesn't reek with booze. Another first-class, subtle winy sauce graces the nicely juicy hunter-style lamb. The filet mignon with green peppercorns is a gem, but order it rare if you want it medium-rare.
Finally, a few bumps to watch out for -- and there are very few in this place. We found the grilled shrimp overpowered by the flavor of smoke, the grilled grouper inexplicably devoid of seasoning, the beautiful veal chop dried out through overcooking and the spaghetti with clams oddly overpriced and swimming in excess oil.
But forget the bumps. Go, have an adventure, tolerate the quirks and wish them good luck. You'll be part of a noble experiment. ::