OBELISK -- 2030 P St. NW. 872-1180. Open: Monday through Saturday 6 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. MC, V. Reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: four- course fixed-price dinner, $27. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $40 to $50 per person.
veryone is speaking Italian this season: pizza, pasta, carpaccio, gelato. Salad is insalata, cornmeal mush is polenta -- and zucchini is all the more zucchini
Suddenly we are inundated with Italian restaurants, big and brassy Italian restaurants with the bustle of the Piazza San Marco at cocktail hour.
In the midst of all the hoopla around Primi Piatti, Paolo's and Ambasciata d'Abruzzo di Roma, a nondescript sign went up on P Street NW to identify a small restaurant a few steps up from the street. "Obelisk," it read. Another new American restaurant? A grazing cafe'? Downstairs was a new jogging-gear shop. Maybe a diet restaurant that turns you slim as an obelisk?
Ah, but there is a menu posted in front. Dated. It changes every day. And it has only a fixed-price dinner, four courses at $27, with two or three choices for each course. Starting with "antipasti," then "pasta," followed by "secondo" and finally "cheese and/or dessert." Aha, another Italian restaurant.
But this is a very different sort of Italian restaurant. Inside it is quiet, with a mere three dozen seats. And it looks delicious. Yes, delicious: Its main decorations are a glass-fronted wine vault in the wall and a long display table with the most compelling loaf of crusty Italian bread (homemade, as it turns out) and a hunk of cheese, usually a grand, craggy, grainy imported parmesan.
Once you are seated, you are quickly brought a plate of a tiny something to nibble. It might be a salt-cod fritter so light it hardly seems fried, with a crunchy and fragile coating for its delicate creamy filling. Or it could be dark glazed little onions and a couple of chanterelles, perhaps another day gently seasoned, roughly chopped chicken-liver paste on toast. You begin to realize that this could be a very fine restaurant you have stumbled onto. You note that the service is intelligent but not intrusive and the dining room simple and informal -- through strong intention rather than by chance.
You go on to the first course, probably something sharp and pungent enough to wake up the appetite but light enough to leave plenty of anticipation for the pasta. These antipasti might be slices of rosy boneless squab stuffed with a bit of liver and wrapped in bacon to keep the bird moist in the roasting. It is a delicious, gamy bit of meat garnished with tiny currant grapes lightly pickled. It might have been the best antipasto I'd tasted at Obelisk if it weren't for the crostini, a slab of that wonderful rough homemade bread toasted on the grill and slathered with herbed fresh cheese and olive oil. It made me, just for the moment, never want to eat complicated food again.
Other evenings the antipasto has been rectangles of roasted red, yellow and green peppers drizzled with green olive oil and crisscrossed with anchovies, very simple and quite wonderful. Or carpaccio, the paper-thin raw meat covering the plate and littered with shavings of that excellent parmesan, drizzled with a tart dressing and surrounded by a wreath of peppery young radish leaves. There might be plain figs and prosciutto or seafood -- raw scallops dressed with garlic and oil, on a bed of curly red and green lettuce sharpened by arugula. These are the kinds of dishes that are key to the greatness of Italian food.
The pastas are likely to be a surprise -- tiny, delicate things in spare portions, but just right for this satisfying four-course dinner. Twice I found lasagna on the list, but this lasagna is a pretty little round of sheer pasta with such subtle fillings as diced fresh tomatoes and onions with a coarse sausage of more aroma than bite, or creamy cheese-thickened sauce with bits of wild mushrooms. Even better was nearly translucent fettuccine with red and yellow peppers and prosciutto, the very freshest and liveliest of simple pasta preparations. I've had lovely gnocchi with a pesto that had an old-fashioned rough texture rather than processor smoothness. And once there was a chunky, earthy vegetable soup with a swirl of pesto. The only disappointment I have found among the pastas was the one that sounded most intriguing: cannelloni with beets and beet greens. Its flavor was dim.
For main dishes there are three choices, usually a fish, a meat and a fowl. I have found making the choice excruciating. How could I not taste the flattened grilled baby chicken with peppercorns? Yet there was roasted salmon topped with minced peppers and wrapped in caul fat to keep it moist (it was glorious) and a mixed grill with a tiny brochette of exquisite liver, a veal kidney so delicate and delicious it could convert the wary, a very nice little beef fillet and a fat homemade sausage that didn't quite live up to my hopes. In all, though, this mixed grill was a delightful plateful. Another night the meat choice was lamb chops, thinly cut and pounded, breaded with crumbs and parmesan and saute'ed so the crunchy crust sealed in the juices. The fish was a small slab of swordfish crosshatched in its grilling and slicked with olive oil and fresh basil, the flesh sheer velvet. Veal might be wrapped in bacon to keep it juicy, saute'ed so that the surface is crusty and the inside just the merest pink, and moistened with a clear brown sauce studded with well- caramelized pearl onions, nuggets of kidney and diced pancetta. Trout comes with its skin crisp and a few near-raw clams garnishing it. One day its sauce was the only flaw among the main courses: pure'ed yellow peppers had turned watery on the plate. Actually, not many of the dishes have sauces, and they are not missed.
Accompaniments to main dishes are carefully constructed, whether cauliflower lightly crumbed and fried to that perfectly cooked moment, a tangle of multi-colored peppers or white beans with the slightest bite left to them. Even zucchini with tomatoes has been raised above the average.
The wines are all Italian, some less than $10 and only a couple more than $20. There is also a strong selection of dessert wines and grappas.
Before dessert, however, you might want a bit of cheese to finish off your wine or if you find these small courses insufficient. Even with no such excuse, I wouldn't miss a chunk of that grainy aged parmesan.
Usually the desserts include biscotti with vin santo -- hard, crunchy, barely sweet homemade almond cookies to dip in Italy's great dessert wine. The changing list of desserts is always unusual, one day poached pears and peaches with peach zabaglione, another day a flat, moist and utterly rich chocolate hazelnut cake, or a handsome, tall pannetone, fine-grained though a bit dry, draped with a light, fluffy zabaglione. Or there might be stunningly flavored ice creams, tasting of figs or spices. But I would like to know ahead of time when bread pudding is going to be on the menu again, for this was like nothing I'd ever tasted and far better than most, a turban of cornmeal sponge and chocolate so light it trembled, on a pool of grand custard sauce.
Then there are proper versions of espresso or cappuccino. Or perhaps grappa. These are the final touches to a reminder that Italians have turned simplicity and freshness into the most exquisite food. It looks artless, but it tastes like art. ::