TRATTORIA VERDI -- 2014 P St. NW. 202-467-4466. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 10 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $3.75 to $4.95, entrees $6.95 to $9.95; dinner appetizers $4.50 to $5.50, entrees $8.95 to $12.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $35 to $50 per person.
DESPITE ITS LOW CEILINGS AND close quarters, the restaurant space at 2014 P St. NW seems to be a charmed spot. Once it was the much-loved Torremolinos, then it was Galileo, which rocketed to national fame and recently moved to larger quarters a few blocks away. Now it has become Trattoria Verdi, a restaurant that, after a disappointing beginning, has taken on a new chef from the old Galileo and I Matti. And once again 2014 P St. is the site of a gastronomic find.
Chef Livio Massignani, a native of Venice, has a way with seasonings that renders familiar dishes surprising and mundane foods exciting. He obviously doesn't aim for finesse or delicacy but produces the bold and bright foods that are Italy's strength. His menu is robust with peppers and olives, anchovies and capers, pancetta and sausage. His tomato sauces are thick and pungent, his herbs are so abundant they add color as well as aroma. His garlic is cut into slices rather than so finely minced that it would disappear in the sauce. In the hands of a less experienced chef such boldness might turn the dishes into a cacophony of screaming flavors. But Massignani knows just when to stop and how to balance; his dishes have the kind of intricate, spicy tease we have learned to love in Cajun cooking.
This is earthy food, homey stuff that shouldn't cost a fortune. And it doesn't. You could spend plenty, but then you probably wouldn't taste the best of Verdi's food. The low end of the menu is at least as delicious as the high end.
Verdi doesn't look much different from the old Galileo. The walls are still stark white, with a few watercolors and one major painting (of Verdi, of course). The main decorative feature is still long, thin bread sticks in baskets, which serve as centerpieces as well as nibbles. The most significant environmental change is that operatic music plays -- at just the right decibel level. And there is some delightfully spirited service in this small dining room.
Italian menus are so long. By the time I've read through the appetizers, soups and pastas, I wish I could just ignore the entrees or save them for another time. And at Verdi, there are appetizers it would be a shame to miss.
If you are a fan of Italy's cotechino sausage, sliced and served warm so it oozes aromatic juices, you should try it here with salsa verde, a bright green crunchy paste of parsley so intense it upstages even the garlic. The fried squid is also superb -- tender and cleanly fresh with a crunchy, flaky crust that is light and greaseless. Nowadays, bruschetta has become as popular as garlic bread was in the '70s. And while Verdi's bruschetta isn't made with the kind of coarse, chewy bread that is Italy's glory, the toppings compensate for any apologies required for the bread.
And the appetizers go on, to a juicy, fragrant marinated seafood salad that falls short of extravagance with small mussels and diced shrimp but tastes as fresh and delectable as any more elegant or expensive version. There is sopressa salami teamed with marinated peppers in several colors, and a simple revelation of a potato salad -- boiled potatoes and fresh green beans strewn with onions, moistened with olive oil and a touch of vinegar. Too many choices: I never, to my regret, even got around to the soups.
At Trattoria Verdi I'd be tempted to immerse myself in the pastas and not leave until I'd tried them all. Thick spaghetti, called bigoli, is tricky to cook al dente yet tender at the core. Here it's been perfect and tossed with a tangy combination of finely minced celery, onions and parsley saute'ed in olive oil with capers, plenty of black pepper and a restrained touch of anchovy. House-made thin spaghetti is equally hard to time, and here it is also perfectly al dente. The pasta itself is tinged with saffron, and the seafood -- shrimp and clams on the regular menu, mussels often as a special -- comes in a really zingy red sauce, just a wash of it, not a pool, quite peppery and fragrant with lots of fresh basil. Even gnocchi -- tiny potato dumplings -- are unusually light and airy, pungent with tomato, intense pancetta and mushrooms. If you have dismissed gnocchi as heavy and boring, this version could impel you to reconsider. An occasional special of linguine with chopped clams is garlicky and briny, a vibrant version. There are other pastas with pesto, potatoes and green beans (a pasta version of the potato salad), with eggplant and olives, with mushroom sauce and with familiar tomato sauces. And there is spinach/ricotta-filled ravioli, the most subtle of Verdi's pastas, that is different from any other I've had in town. These ravioli are pretty rounds with the plump green mound of filling showing through the thinnest ivory pasta and sage butter sauce. Its smooth spinach paste once again displays the chef's bent for spiciness. Risotto also appears as a special, and it is vastly aromatic with saffron and, in the case of the seafood version, the briny fresh flavors of shrimp, mussels and squid.
If there are failures in this chef's art, they are likely to show up in the main dishes. Braised rabbit looks unattractively bare and tastes drab. Veal scaloppine can be wonderful, but not because of the meat itself, which is pounded thin and tends to be dry. The sauces save it, one of them with a mince of onions, celery, olives and basil moistened with olive oil, another bright with pancetta, ham and herbs. Among the specials, veal pizzaiola is worthwhile for the sauce alone, thick with tomatoes and black olives. Fish is available as a special, usually a baked salmon with pink peppercorn sauce that seems less Italian -- and less interesting -- than the rest of the menu, and a choice of grilled fish. My grilled swordfish was deliciously crusty and juicy, with a simple lemon-parsley seasoning.
You're not likely to be hungering after dessert, but if you crave a little richness, Verdi serves the usual tiramisu -- creamy and airy -- and a chocolate mousse cake better than most. In a slightly lighter vein is an apple cake from a family recipe, a buttery, crusty-edged yellow spongecake layered with apples and served with a custard sauce. And the richest of all is chocolate salami, a slice of soft fudge studded with raisins and nuts and draped with a foamy, winy custard sauce.
Trattoria Verdi is not a restaurant meant to compete with the Italian superstars of downtown Washington. It is simpler and less expensive, a showcase for homey Italian cooking of considerable personality.