TIZIO -- 10252 Lake Arbor Way, Mitchellville. 301-350-7148. Open: Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 4 to 9 p.m. MC, V. Reservations accepted. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch and dinner appetizers $3.25 to $5.95, lunch entrees $4 to $10.75, dinner entrees $4.75 to $12.25. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $19 to $31 per person.
SPORTS FANS IN NEW YORK OR Boston don't have to worry about where to eat before a Knicks or Celtics game -- their arenas are in the heart of town, surrounded by good restaurants. But Capital Centre? Let's face it, Landover is not synonymous with fine dining. Until now, if you wanted a quick meal before a game or concert, you could: a) eat at home, just like every night; b) pick up some fast food, down it while driving one-handed on the Beltway and have a couple of Pepto-Bismol for dessert; or c) wait till you got to Cap Centre to stuff yourself with junk and hold the Pepto till the opening tip-off.
But things are looking up. Now there's Tizio, a good Italian restaurant in Mitchellville, just minutes from Capital Centre, where -- if you order the dishes they do best -- you can eat very well, and at a modest price. The menu offers the usual dinner items -- shellfish, broiled fish, pastas, veal, chicken -- as well as pizza, calzone, sandwiches and a few excellent desserts. So you can design yourself anything from a dinner to a snack, or just go for a sweet and coffee. The look of the place matches the mix of foods, nicely straddling the line between pizza-parlor-plain and downtown-fancy. Done up simply but prettily in muted grays, the dining room is accented with striking, stone-gray pillars that lend an oddbut handsome Flintstone-deco look. The servers have been friendly and accommodating, if none too adroit. They claim to be able to serve a meal quickly for those on their way to Capital Centre, but we'd advise against testing that pledge. Play it safe and get there early. Tizio is one of those restaurants whose strengths and weaknesses are so clear-cut they make a reviewer's job easy. Here's the book on this place: Go for the pastas (made in house), the fish and shellfish, the pizza, the calzone, the fried dishes and the red sauces, but sidestep the chicken, veal and sandwiches.
Given those ground rules, it's no surprise that the fried calamari appetizer is terrific. It's an immense portion (as are most of the appetizers here), with a tempura-light egg batter and fresh-tasting squid that are tender but not over-soft. A plate of these beauties and a couple of Italian beers would make a dynamite snack for two people.
There's more fine frying in the light, creamy fried mozzarella. The mussels are flawless too, plump and sweet, in an excellent marinara sauce. So is the mini white pizza, wonderfully fragrant with fresh minced garlic. The house-made bread, brown-crusted little loaves baked directly on the hearth of the pizza oven, is sure to win your heart. But you'll probably be bored by the flat-flavored soups.
The best of the pastas are the ricotta-stuffed varieties. The house-made ravioli, for example, are a marvelous marriage of textures and flavors, with firm yet remarkably thin pasta envelopes, a wonderfully airy cheese filling with a smidgen of nutmeg and a good, tangy, rough-cut tomato sauce. Nearly on a par, if a bit less firm, are the delicate manicotti and the heartier stuffed shells. Although their flavors are lovely, the lasagna and canneloni tend toward runniness. As lovely as Tizio's red sauces are, its hopelessly bland Alfredo sauce totally misses the point: What breathes life into this simple sauce is a really good, earthy parmesan -- without it, forget it.
The mussels, clams and calamari have been knockouts, very fresh and perfectly cooked. All are available with linguini in a good, fruity tomato sauce. As in most restaurants, the shrimp are more iffy -- we found them just a bit past their prime on two occasions. That's too bad, because the fra diavolo sauce served with the shrimp is a peppery, garlicky gem. If you're partial to hot sauces, you might ask for this one on the clams or calamari.
The broiled fish has been as outstanding as the shellfish -- fresh-tasting, carefully cooked so it's firm and succulent, generously portioned and reasonably priced. On one visit we had excellent mahi-mahi, on another a remarkably juicy wedge of tuna topped with saute'ed tomatoes, onion and green pepper -- a jewel of a dish. Some of the nightly chicken-plus-pasta specials have been pleasant enough -- we had one with a subtle, nicely herbed sherry-cream sauce -- but most of the chicken and veal dishes are dry and characterless.
On to the finger-food side of the menu. Tizio's pizza is simply terrific, the genuine New York-style article, baked directly on the oven's bricks for a brown-bottomed crust. There's not a trace of sweetness or oiliness to this pizza, and the tomato sauce is chunky and fresh-tasting rather than thin and acidic. If Tizio served only pizza, it would be reason enough for a visit. The calzone, available with five different fillings, is just as good, but it's served topped with tomato sauce, which we'd suggest holding or having on the side. The sandwiches are a big disappointment. With all the marvelous bread and pizza in this place, why in the world are the sandwiches made with those blobby commercial sub rolls?
The wines, reasonably priced, are mainly limited to the mass-market Italian brands sold at your corner store. A good choice is the 1986 Nozzole chianti classico, tawny and full-bodied (note that it takes a lot of breathing time to smooth out this wine). And don't overlook the Moretti Italian beer, especially the dark version.
There are two first-class desserts, both made in house and big enough for two. The rum cake is a good, old-fashioned sponge cake with excellent custard (albeit light on the rum); and the tiramisu, a gentle, nearly coffee-less version, is smothered in wonderfully creamy mascarpone. But there are losers too. The cannoli is far too sweet, and the amaretto cheesecake is so overdosed with almond flavor that it tastes like a cheesy mar- zipan.
Okay, you transplanted New Yorkers, Mitchellville isn't Seventh Avenue. But the best of Tizio's dishes could hold their own anywhere in Manhattan. And at Tizio you can park.
Mark and Gail Barnett are free-lance restaurant critics. Phyllis C. Richman is on assignment.