Restaurants, like children, sometimes come back home after you think they're gone for good. Thus San Marco, born as Veneziano, was returned to its original owner after he sold it. Now he's giving it a fresh start with a new name and format.
This time around, the menu is simpler. In fact, it's much like that of Pasta Mia, the enormously popular pasta restaurant a couple of blocks north in Adams-Morgan. San Marco has also been redecorated, and it's a model of charm on a shoestring. The dining room is white and green, as fresh as mint. Apparently a collector lurks behind the scenes, as the walls are hung with Venetian masks, witty and delicate, one more fanciful than the other, and shelf after shelf is lined with decorative liqueur bottles -- grappas, eaux de vie -- arranged in artful groupings. An unexceptional space has been turned personal.
This is a small restaurant with modest goals. The staff never seems to consist of more than three or four people, one presumably the chef, who occasionally wanders through the dining room in his toque to exchange a few words with his colleagues. The room has the air of a bar on the town square, site of an ongoing conversation that diners, too, might drop in on. Service is casual, friendly, yet clearly professional. It's the kind of place where everyone seems to be a regular, even newcomers by the end of the meal. And it seems utterly Italian.
It's a restaurant that aims to be satisfying rather than great. Humble pleasures. The bread is middling, though the spongy focaccia has an agreeable bite of hot pepper and the olive oil for dipping has a branch of herbs in it. The wine list is small, unassuming and so reasonably priced -- starting from $3.75 a glass -- that you might be drinking these regional wines on their Italian home ground.
You could dine for under $15 on a plate of pasta, a glass of wine and a salad. And the grandest feast the kitchen provides wouldn't go much above $25, all told. The entrees are all pastas except for a daily fish and a veal special, and the appetizers are all cold except for a soup and a grilled portobello. San Marco is just the place when you want a dinner that's quick or simple or light, but you don't want to settle for chain-restaurant anonymity. It's primed for the overflow crowd at Pasta Mia, though I wouldn't be surprised to find it developing its own camp.
You won't need an appetizer to fill you up; the portions are hefty. But it's nice to start with something cold and vigorous, perhaps a plate of crimson roast peppers crisscrossed with anchovies or draped with prosciutto under a glisten of olive oil. Tomato-mozzarella salad, that classic Italian marriage, would benefit from riper tomatoes and more fresh herbs. But the bean salad, often a special, is without flaws. It's exquisitely simple, with freshly cooked beans, red onion, a hint of acid and a drizzle of oil. Marinated calamari, also a special, carries simplicity too far: It needs bolder seasoning or more time in its marinade. Vitello tonnato has appeared often over the summer, but it, too, could use a braver ration of flavor -- of tuna, of anchovy, of lemon.
Just because the menu's entrees are all pastas, don't assume you should ignore the fish and meat specials. The chef, the waiter confides, won a prize for his tuna with mushrooms, and if you're lucky he'll be doing the swordfish variation the night you're there. The fish is sliced thin and sauteed with sliced mushrooms so that both are tender enough to nearly melt into each other. It's littered with mild white garlic and bright green chives, flecked with herbs and slippery with olive oil, all wonderfully aromatic. Veal scaloppine is also thin and tender, not full-flavored meat on its own but raised to greater accomplishment by a lemony pan sauce and a topping of asparagus spears and Parmesan, glazed under the broiler. Nor are these entrees left naked on the plate; garlicky broccoli florets with lemon or baby carrots rolled in garlic accompany them, along with a fluff of salad and a few salty black olives. The meat and fish dishes, usually around $12, are bargains.
But the long list of pastas and the risotto, all under $10, are hard to pass by. You won't find fresh clams in the shell or sea-sweet shrimp at such prices, but these mounds of pasta show plenty of character. Linguine with clams has a succulent balance of wine, lemon, olive oil and clam juice, with chives and red pepper adding just enough bite. The pasta is al dente, and the sauce is just viscous enough to cling to it. Tomato sauces also show a strong dose of personality, in all the usual guises of angel hair, penne arrabbiata, fusilli amatriciana and ravioli bolognese. Pesto, carbonara -- over-rich and too mild -- and mushroom-cream sauce all make their expected appearances. Risotto is creamy and steeped in the flavor of its mushrooms or shrimp or sausage, sometimes even squid ink. If this cooking is not reaching for stars, it's adept and undeniably Italian.
Desserts are predictable -- tiramisu, cheesecake, tartufo, gelatos -- and bought elsewhere. The kitchen's own pastry skills are limited to filling cannoli to order. The most attractive ending is the rolling cart of grappas. No wonder the dining room has so many bottles to display.
San Marco is quiet and easygoing, an extremely pleasant neighborhood restaurant. It's just the kind Washington might have by the dozen -- if only we had Italian neighborhoods here.
SAN MARCO -- 2305 18TH ST. NW. 202-483-9300. Open: for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. MC, V. Reservations suggested. Smoking in bar area only. Prices: appetizers $3.50 to $7.75, entrees $7.25 to about $12. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $20 to $25 per person.
A diner in a Maryland restaurant ordered the daily special, described as a whole red snapper, and was disappointed to be served just a snapper fillet.
"What happened to the rest of the fish?" he asked.
"Why do you ask?" the waiter countered.
The special, he reminded the waiter, had promised the whole fish.
The waiter tried to appease the diner by reassuring him that he wasn't being shortchanged: "The fillet is actually larger than the whole fish." -- P.C.R.