Hyatt Regency Hotel, 1 Bethesda Metro Center, Bethesda. 657-6498. Open: Monday through Saturday 6 to 10:30 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: dinner appetizers $3.75 to $7.50, entrees $8 to $17.75. Full din- ner with wine, tax and tip about $36 to $50 per person.
FORGET SILICON CHIPS AND Biotechnology. Today's growth industry is upscale Italian restaurants. Not only are new ones cropping up all over the place, but existing restaurants seem to be Italianizing themselves faster than you can say carpaccio. That's what happened at Bethesda's Hyatt Regency. The hotel is only a few years old, but already its flagship restaurant, Breton's, has transformed itself into a pricey and very good Italian restaurant called Fellini's. (The name itself could start a new trend. Can we now expect Coppola's? Scorsese's?)
The menu here follows the fashionable formula -- designer pizzas, lots of grilled entrees, a dab of polenta wherever you look. Formula or not, Fellini's has a fine kitchen, particularly when it comes to pasta and seafood. Ingredients have been impeccably fresh, portions generous, sauces intelligently flavored and applied with restraint. This food is gorgeous to look at too, dramatized by plates of striking shape and color. The servers are young, enthusiastic and thoroughly
Although Fellini's is certainly a comfortable place, with enough of an elegant feel to support its prices, the decor is a strange patchwork of styles. The upper, more formal room, in which polished rosewood paneling and mirrors coexist with glass bricks and gold-topped marble columns, has the vaguely "classic" look of a first-class dining room on an ocean liner. The trattoria-style lower room, with a semi-open kitchen, features a marble tile floor, more rosewood, art deco lighting fixtures and a wall painted with Roman busts that harks back to the rococo Italian restaurants of the 1950s.
A hard-to-beat appetizer is the nicely chewy linguine with mussels, in an excellent broth of olive oil, minced garlic, parsley, pepper and herbs; the broth deserves to be eaten as a soup. Perhaps the most interesting appetizer, an intriguing combination of flavors, textures and colors, is mozzarella al forno, the cheese coated with a crunchy layer of pine nuts and served with bits of crushed tomato, onion, zucchini and prosciutto. The carpaccio is outstanding too, fresh and delicate, sliced tissue-thin and served with grated parmesan and horseradish sauce. There are also decent but unexceptional fried calamari, as well as a fine antipasto with first-class prosciutto, copicola, mortadella and salami.
The salads here are extraordinarily good, including an elegant house salad in a lovely tomato vinaigrette and a big, perfectly balanced Caesar salad (a good buy at $3.25). Even the mozzarella and tomato salad, laid out dazzlingly on a black plate, is exceptional. The two soups are outstanding too, yet as different as night and day. Night is the pasta e fagiole, a dark, lusty, peppery delight, as thick as stew, with admirably firm beans and pasta. Day is the verdure al pesto, a clear, delicate chicken broth with lively vegetables, just a bit of cheese and a light, herby flavor -- a sunny jewel of a soup.
The pizza is very good, with a hefty, cornmeal-dusted, hearth-baked crust that can stand up to the toppings. The version with goat cheese and grilled chicken makes for a tasty entree, although the chicken, whose flavor is hopelessly overwhelmed by the cheese, might just as well have stayed home.
Most of the pastas are marvelous, carefully cooked to be chewy and just coated with clingy, well-flavored sauces. Two top choices: the refined fettuccine with four cheeses, in a rich but incisively flavored sauce that isn't dulled by an excess of cream; and the simple, robust pappardelle, a big bowl of broad, firm noodles with plum tomatoes, peas and slices of lively sausage. Even the back-to-basics spaghetti with olive oil and roasted garlic is a gem. But not all the pastas have been perfect. We found the ravioli, excellent in themselves, saddled with an overly rich butter sauce stridently flavored with chives. And the seafood cannelloni was runny, overly soft and choked in a thick shroud of melted cheese.
The daily grilled fish specials are exceptional here. They're often prepared with a zippy pizzaola sauce piquant with plum tomatoes, olives and capers, and served gorgeously on black faux marble plates. Even the grilled swordfish, so often dry in restaurants, is remarkably moist, served with just a bit of butter, white beans and polenta. (The grilled salmon is pleasant but less interesting.) The zuppa di pesce is a beauty, with good shrimp, clams, mussels and calamari, plus chunks of firm fish, in a light, lovely broth with tomato, olive oil and rosemary and remarkably firm linguine -- this is another broth to enjoy with a spoon. A couple of seafood specials worth watching for: the sea scallops with pesto sauce, a robust, country-style dish that's a little oily but lovable nonetheless; and the risotto with mixed seafood, the risotto firm but creamy, moist but not runny.
The meat dishes are nicely done but noticeably less inspired than the seafood. The best is the veal chop, big, thick and tender, appropriately set off by a smooth, mild, not-too-rich sauce of reduced meat stock and cream. Fellini's mixed grill is pleasant enough -- a good quality lamb chop, a piece of nicely grilled Cornish hen, a patty of decent veal sausage -- but, like most mixed grills, it's not particularly challenging to cook or exciting to eat. Also short on excitement is the roast chicken, moist and tender but lacking in pizazz. This bird needs a more vigorous rubdown -- with herbs, lemon juice, garlic, the works. For unreconstructed beef eaters there's a pounded sirloin topped with herbs that's flavorful but a bit dry.
Desserts are not a strong suit here. The best are the gelato and the tiramisu, an unusually prim version that goes easy on the liqueur but is a standout if you view it simply as chocolate cake with mascarpone frosting. Forget the cannoli and tarts, which suffer from terminal oversweetness.
For decades, Americans were too often masochists when it came to Italian restaurants. Mistreated with awful pasta mush and tomato sludge, they nonetheless kept coming back for more. But now the relationship is taking a more mature turn. Restaurants like Fellini's -- and, increasingly, its less expensive counterparts -- are treating people's sensibilities with some respect, allowing them the joy of real Italian food. And it's catching on. Before you know it they'll be selling olive oil at 7-Eleven.
Mark and Gail Barnett are freelance restaurant critics. Phyllis C. Richman is on vacation.