TEATRO GOLDONI -- 1909 K ST. NW. 202-955-9494. 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 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Smoking in bar area only. Prices: lunch appetizers $5.50 to $9.50, entrees $12.95 to $18.95; dinner appetizers $5.50 to $14.95, entrees $12.50 to $21.50. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $40 to $85 per person.
Chef Fabrizio Aielli has outgrown kitchens. Even an open kitchen can't contain his act. Now he needs an entire theater for his showcase.
His new Teatro Goldoni -- an offshoot of his Osteria Goldoni on 20th Street -- looks like a three-ring extravaganza in Ringling Bros. colors, with harlequin diamonds swooping across the upholstery and climbing two-story panels of glass. Venetian masks line one wall, and glowing glass lamps hang like a parade of torches from the ceiling. Immense columns are decorated with barber-pole stripes, and banquettes are punctuated with tall blue hourglasses that look like postmodern lava lamps. The room soars and curves and slithers.
The stage? It's the glass-fronted kitchen that stretches across the rear of the restaurant. But it's set up high, with banquettes below it, and in a room behind the main one. So this is not a kitchen designed for the diners to watch, but more for the chefs to keep an eye on the customers.
Teatro is a restaurant with Washington sensibilities. The acoustics are remarkable for such a large open space: You can hear your table mates but not your neighbors. The curved banquettes are deep and velvety. "Sometimes it's very hard to get there, but when you do it's very comfortable," reassures the hostess as guests struggle to slide around to the inside. As befits a bar in a world capital, this one is hidden from view of the front door, the better to see without being seen. And the TV over the bar? It's tuned in to the kitchen.
Even the diners look like part of the cast. Where else in town are so many graying men entertaining plunging, tightly clinging wisps of fabric wrapped around barely legal champagne-sipping girls? "Get me a dozen lobbyists," I imagine the interior designer demanding. "And accessories."
On with the show!
The wine list is an innovation: Every wine is available by the glass, and the list is long. How can the restaurant afford that? By charging one-fourth the bottle price per glass. Since few wines are under $40, that means you'll often pay more than $10, and sometimes $50, per glass. When I checked with local wine shops, I found that some of Teatro's glasses cost well over half the retail price of the bottle. At that rate, you should get free refills.
The bread is a shocker: Yes, there are really olives and chocolate in the dark brown bread.
The cooking is called "Venetian world cuisine." That means there's pasta on the menu, along with tuna tartare, Caesar salad and mahi-mahi with crab, fennel, olives and mint. The catholic spirit extends to welcoming vegetarians by way of five entrees.
The waiters intermingle Italian charm and expansiveness with a K Street lawyer's stress level. They're overbooked. Plan on spending the evening.
The food is meant to dazzle the eye and tickle the imagination. If it thrills the taste buds, so much the better. The cubed tuna in the tartare is the same shape -- and color -- as the accompanying beets, so each bite is a throw of the dice. Cute. But not until the bottom did I find any seasoning --
flying fish roe with wasabi. The Caesar salad has the kind of tangy, creamy, anchovy richness I had just about given up for lost; it's fashionably piled in a crunchy Parmesan basket. At lunch, an appetizer of crispy seafood deserves entree stardom. Its batter is stunningly light and well seasoned, even if its oysters and scallops and calamari are overcooked in a sacrifice to crispness.
If soup is the test of a restaurant, Teatro comes up both pass and fail. A mushroom soup at lunch is too thick and floury, with gummy wads called bread gnocchi. At dinner, the seafood chowder -- though it's served in an awkward bowl -- should be renamed Broth of the Sea Gods. Its briny tomato stock is clear as a bell, with a lem-ony ring, poured over the juiciest chunks of fish and the sweetest shellfish.
Aielli has a playful way with pastas. His black pappardelle is an inky wave floating baby octopus and calamari. His agnolotti, plump as pillows and sheer as gauze, bathe in a mysterious sauce of saffron and spinach. It's a sauce good enough to deserve a spoon, though the agnolotti are stuffed with vapid shrimp. His risotto is textbook-perfect. Then there are cunning cannelloni, thin as cigars, stuffed with mushrooms and broccoli rabe, under a ragu of clams. This is poetry wrapped in chewy crepes.
The Venetian theme shows in the entrees: Veal and beef tenderloin and chicken breast are the only meats, far outnumbered by fish dishes. But more isn't better. The misnamed "crispy salmon" is fish wrapped in seaweed, then a thick, heavy batter; its sea urchin sauce underplays that main ingredient. Other times salmon is peppered and accompanied by foie gras and red wine sauce. Or your fish can be simply grilled. But the mahi-mahi has been dry and bland in its plain grilled state, and is far more interesting when enlivened by shredded crab in a smooth black-olive and mint sauce that's like liquid midnight. Sea bass is crisp-skinned and juicy, served with morels and more of those vapid shrimp, resting on an earthy root-vegetable puree. In sum, the elaborations sound seductive and taste adventurous, though they sometimes deliver less than they promise.
Meat dishes are more conventional -- and often more satisfying. Beef tenderloin with Gorgonzola is indeed tender, and despite its weird topknot of whole stuffed tomato, it tastes familiar and satisfying. Veal tenderloin, too, is straightforward and admirable, topped with porcini and flavored with truffle.
The vegetarian dishes are flights of fancy: a couple of eggplant inventions; a rice creation; a Parmesan basket filled with grilled vegetables and accompanied by three quirky cold sauces, of chickpeas, wild fennel and balsamic vinegar. I'd prefer my grilled vegetables less raw, but it's a handsome melange. The heaviest of the vegetarian dishes, a triangle of potato and spinach, crash-landed as a glutinous, greasy slab of starch.
With desserts, as with the vegetarian dishes, lighter is better. Sorbets of carrot and grapefruit or of coconut with candied mango are refreshing without being odd (I can't vouch for the red beet with honey). And while green tea souffle is definitely odd, it's interestingly so, even if it's not worth $10.95 to satisfy one's curiosity. The richer sweets might look like a party on the plate, but the cakes are intensely sugary and the creme caramel and the vanilla mousse are puddings designed to bounce.
Teatro is an original production. It can make you ooh and ahh. It can add up to an exciting show. But sometimes you're painfully aware that Aielli is cooking up a high-wire act without a net.