Agrodolce

21030-J Frederick Rd. (in Milestone Center), Germantown. 301-528-6150

Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 4 to 9 p.m., Friday 4 to 10 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. All major credit cards. No smoking. Parking lot. Prices: lunch appetizers $4 to $13,

entrees $6 to $11; dinner appetizers $4 to $15, entrees $8 to $24.

Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $40 to $60 per person.

Phil Burleson discovered a little problem with the restaurant he opened 3 1/2 years ago as La Terrazza in Germantown: It sounded too much like Terrazza in Chevy Chase and Tauraso's in Frederick -- so much so that diners routinely made reservations for one place thinking it was another, and never mind that the restaurants were in different towns. Thus, three months into the life of La Terrazza, Burleson took the radical step of renaming it Agrodolce.

By any billing, the place radiates good cheer, beginning with its yellow neon sign, which shines like a beacon from the corner of a shopping center. The voice that greeted you on the phone was so enthusiastic, your hopes are high even before you drive up. And when you get there, the staff follows through with service that's the equivalent of a group hug. "Hi, my name is Jennifer, and I'll be taking care of you tonight" may sound like a cliche, but here it's reinforced with true knowledge of the menu and attention to your comfort. The treatment would be admirable in most any neighborhood but is especially welcome in this neck of the exurban woods, where fast food is easier to find than spaghettini al pomodoro and veal scaloppine.

These and other dishes get a warm backdrop in the form of two narrow rooms separated by a half-wall. One of them looks onto a tree-trimmed courtyard, the other abuts an exhibition kitchen. In cold weather I prefer the second space, cozily set beneath a faux grape arbor illuminated with tiny white lights. In both rooms, terra cotta floors and tile-topped tables can make for noisy dining. But that doesn't stop people from crowding the place at all hours. And Tuesday evenings offer live guitar and singing from 6 to 9 p.m., courtesy of one of chef-owner Burleson's longtime friends.

Another impressive draw at Agrodolce is its wine list, which has heft, both physically and in the reading. "The more I make on wine, the more I spend on wine," Burleson says of his user-friendly selection. By-the-glass prices average just under $7 and feature such inviting picks as chenin blanc from South Africa's Cheetah Valley and a cabernet-merlot blend from Washington state's Hedges Cellars. The collection is not without a few eccentricities, however. The American white wine selection emphasizes far too many expensive chardonnays, and while I applaud the presence of more than 20 Australian red wines, generally praised for their good value, it's a shame that only two of the bunch here are under $40. Still, the choices tend to avoid the routine (cabernet lovers will be particularly thrilled), and each gets poured into fine stemware.

"Why not share a wood-fired pizza as an appetizer?" the menu asks, and a lot of guests bite, choosing from a range of possibilities that include the calabrese (with Italian sausage and stewed peppers) and the pollo (with grilled chicken, mushrooms and onions). A white pizza comes decked out with broccoli, spinach, tomatoes and two kinds of cheese; so far, so good. But Agrodolce needs to work on its pizza crusts, which are pleasantly thin and blistered but also surprisingly timid in character.

A smoother entry can be found in a plate of light and crunchy calamari, equal parts tentacles and rings, offered with a wicked marinara sauce. Almost every appetizer could be shared here, so generous are the portions. The spinach and arugula salad owes its success to an ingredient list that reads like a stroll through a fancy grocery aisle: goat cheese, walnuts, pomegranate seeds, toasted pine nuts and ginger-spiked pear chutney -- all framed in brittle plantain chips. Only somewhat more restrained is the carpaccio of filet mignon, the thin, pink rounds of raw meat lavished with capers, ribbons of roasted red peppers and shards of nutty Parmesan cheese -- plus a bold red onion relish in the center. This is a kitchen that can't resist the temptation to add more to a dish, even when less is plenty.

Pastas run from thin linguine with mussels and white garlic sauce to thick gnocchi topped with morel mushrooms, wisps of arugula, walnut sauce and truffle oil. Although the gnocchi's earthy aroma momentarily commands the attention of everyone nearby, it is one more case of the chef's going overboard. More to my taste are the simple, cheese-stuffed ravioli with creamy tomato sauce, an appetizer of he-man dimensions. From the wood-stoked oven comes a satisfying lasagna, its soft noodles layered with ricotta and pecorino cheeses and ground veal, a hot marriage made zestier by a covering of rich tomato sauce. And Agrodolce's fettuccine, cooked to retain some bite and tossed with tender shrimp and flaked crab, is a soothing indulgence.

No matter the recipe, the food shows up thoughtfully arranged and on interesting plates -- white rectangles here, clear dishes there -- that remind you Agrodolce goes several steps beyond the standard to please its customers. But I wish the kitchen focused more on the fine points: The complexity of the red wine sauce spooned over osso buco is admirable, but not the dry lamb shank itself.

While the menu is mostly Italian, Burleson, who previously co-owned Cafe Mileto in Germantown -- and is racing to open a Mediterranean place called Amada Amante in Rockville next month -- is interested in expanding his geographical horizons. "I love American food, and French food," he says. So he rounds out his offerings here with interesting chalkboard specials (think Kobe sirloin over sweet potato puree) and standing-menu items like duck pate.

Desserts tend to be very sweet and sometimes clever, like the chocolate cookie "cigar" poised on a brick-size glass ashtray. The joke runs to the tip of the cigar, where spun sugar "smoke" rises from toasted coconut "ashes." The more traditional Italian closing statements include a decent tiramisu and cannoli that will leave takers in sugar shock. I say, go for the laughs instead.

Ask Tom

"As native Washingtonians who now live in Annapolis, we occasionally make forays back to our old haunts," write readers John and Janis Beach, who want to know the whereabouts of Bernard Grenier, who sold La Miche in Bethesda after more than two decades last May. I tracked down the French chef in Washington at 518 10th St. NW (the former Star Saloon), which Grenier is redesigning as a bistro and hopes to open later this month as Bistro d'OC, after his native Languedoc in southern France. In his new digs, he plans to serve cassoulet, pepper steak with french fries -- "and a few Thai things," he says, in honor of his Thai-born wife, Thasanee.

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