1110 21st St. NW. (202) 293-7191. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 5 to 9 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $5.95 to $9.95, entrees $10.95 to $16.95; dinner appetizers $6.95 to $10.95, entrees $16.95 to $28.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $70 per person.
ROBERTO DONNA IS STANDING tall these days. He no longer has to bend over to listen to his customers when he cruises the dining room. His restaurant, Galileo, has moved to spacious quarters where the ceiling is high and the din is gone.
Companions can hear each other across the table. Waiters don't have to repeat everything several times. And Donna's cooking tastes better than ever when it can be enjoyed with fresh air circulating freely and indirect lighting turning arched nooks into tableaux. The interior designer has captured the bustle and liveliness of an Italian trattoria, and brought the sunshine through the arches that break the room into personal proportions.
The waiters seem energized. They act proud, enthusiastic and oh-so-Italian. Undecided between two wines? A waiter recommends one that his friend's father makes. Another waiter, opening a bottle, says that smelling that wine reminds him of home. Galileo's waiters behave like hosts and work as a team. This new Galileo is fun.
And Donna says that the kitchen -- a dozen times the size of his old one -- allows his cooking more scope. He has the space to make stuffed pastas galore, even at lunch. He can be more experimental, more elaborate. There is a separate pastry kitchen. And a few guests can sit at a table in the kitchen and watch the show.
An evening at Galileo deserves extravagance. Start with a bellini -- sparkling Italian wine with a touch of peach juice. The kitchen is likely to send out a sample of bruschetta -- grilled bread topped with diced tomatoes and olive oil. Then there is the basket of house-made breads, some studded with olives, others flavored with rosemary or tomato. They're enough to hold you as you browse through the long and intriguing wine list. There are two pages of chiantis, a page of brunellos, half a page of arneis -- which the waiter says are very fashionable nowadays. Wine prices are high, but in the $25 to $35 range there are some delicious experiences.
The menu changes twice a day, and stretches through hot and cold antipasti, salads, risotti, half a dozen pastas, a soup or two, meats and fish both simply grilled and more elaborately prepared. You will want to plan room for dessert, since Galileo offers nearly two dozen choices.
Cold appetizers are light and vivid -- marinated broccoli, eggplant or asparagus, plus such inventive combinations as cauliflower with black olives, capers and anchovies. Imported prosciutto is teamed with fresh figs, creamy white mozzarella with tomatoes, peppers with garlic, capers and anchovies. Vitello tonnato is the most delicate slices of veal with a subtly tangy tuna and caper cream, an irreproachable rendition.
Hot appetizers lean heavily on vegetables -- stuffed peppers, baked asparagus with cheese, saute'ed greens. But forget everything else if there is teste di funghi, a huge, thick, black portabella or porcini mushroom grilled on one side so the top is imbued with butter, crusty and meaty, while the underside is pale and firm. It is the summit of mushroom eating.
You'll undoubtedly want to work pasta into your meal or share a creamy, faintly crunchy classic risotto (I think it's too much for one person as an appetizer, too monotonous for a main course). The stuffed pastas are most interesting -- the spinach and ricotta agnolotti has pasta so thin it almost doesn't exist. Ravioli with green pea stuffing and lobster sauce stretches credibility, though, and the lobster was not succulent. Fish pastas -- perhaps topped with diced seafood and herbs or with swordfish and black olives -- are compelling, since the fish here is very fresh and carefully cooked.
Fish is also a specialty among main dishes. Each day there are at least half a dozen types of fish to be grilled with just a brushing of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Given such a famed chef in the kitchen, though, you might feel you'd missed something if you order just plain fish. More notable is the whole crisp-skinned baked rockfish or the fillet of red snapper or grouper imbued with garlic, herbs and olive oil, accompanied by artichokes and black olives. Also sounding more eventful are swordfish stuffed with bread crumbs, pine nuts and raisins; baked salmon with fava beans and basil; tuna with mint, rosemary and potatoes; and saute'ed snapper with potatoes, balsamic vinegar, broccoli and diced tomatoes.
It is the meat dishes, however, that most compel me. The menu might have juicy squab with chanterelles and a faintly sweet marsala sauce, or a succulent, flavorful pheasant sparked with balsamic vinegar. If you're really in luck, you'll find lamb chops "stuffed with pork," which means they're wrapped in delicate house-made sausage and caul fat, then baked so the caul melts into a caramelized veil, accompanied by sliced potatoes perfumed with truffles. The pork-stuffed lamb chop and an appetizer of grilled portabella mushroom add up to two versions of heaven.
But not all is immortal. Rolled stuffed duck is sinewy and chewy under its crisp skin wrapper, and other plain grilled or roasted meats -- baby lamb, veal chop, thin slices of pale liver -- are, like the grilled fish, quite good but no test of a great chef.
If you favor innards, watch for Galileo's sweetbreads, for they are a brilliant interplay of crisp and creamy, the mild meat contrasting with salty shreds of prosciutto and earthy mushrooms. Brains are also intelligently cooked, their surface browned and their insides meltingly soft; but uncooked marsala turned the sauce bitter on my last visit -- an accident I wouldn't expect or tolerate often.
The most tangible impact of this new kitchen is the desserts. The immense variety includes double-crusted fruit tarts of elegant rusticity, tiny turnovers stuffed with figs and poised on a custard-based sauce painting, berries arranged like flowers or afloat on thick ivory zabaglione. Pears are poached and fanned out beside a tiny oval custard. And ice creams -- the best being chocolate hazelnut or honey -- are so velvety rich and creamy that they threaten to hold their shape even when melted.
I used to think that food was really all that mattered in a restaurant, but many years ago I began to learn otherwise. And the proof is nowhere stronger than at the new Galileo, where all the senses can now be well fed.