4483 Connecticut Ave. NW (at Albemarle Street)
Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.;
for dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 9:45 p.m., Friday and Saturday
5 to 10:45 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. No smoking.
Metro: Van Ness-UDC. Prices: lunch appetizers $5.25 to $5.95, entrees
$5.95 to $9.95; dinner appetizers $5.50 to $7.50, entrees $13.95
to $22.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $50 per person.
It opened in December with fewer than 40 seats on a stretch of Connecticut Avenue that isn't known for memorable places to eat. That detail alone meant area residents were eager to welcome Trattoria Liliana to the neighborhood. Encouraged by enticing reports from more than a few food spies, I found myself sitting in the cozy dining room not long ago, plucking perfectly fried anchovies, squid and shrimp from a plate of golden fritto misto and watching attentive service unfold all around me.
An enormous sunburst, 30 colors strong, was splashed across the ceiling and continued at eye level, thanks to mirrors on the wall that captured and repeated the vibrant pattern.
(It is the handiwork of John Hutson, a local designer, who traded his services for meals at Trattoria Liliana.) The tables were covered with handsome fabrics, and on the walls, knotty wood wainscoting gave way to cream-colored paint.
"I make the gelato myself," I overheard a handsome woman in a long white apron tell a family of four. "Do you like it?" The broad smiles on the faces of the two children at the table seemed to satisfy the questioner, Liliana Dumas, who moved on to fuss over another table before returning to the small open kitchen she shares with her husband, Maurice. After 43 years of marriage and plenty of experience cooking for crowds -- she spent a dozen years at Listrani's on MacArthur Boulevard, he worked at Monroe's in Alexandria, and they both put in time at the late Sostanza in Dupont Circle -- the two appear to know how to balance work and fun.
The division of labor goes like this: He bakes the bread, cranks out the pasta and makes the mozzarella. She concentrates on making salads, desserts and mascarpone. Between handling orders from their guests, it's not unusual for one or both to step away from the stove to welcome a new face or to buss a regular customer on the cheek. They are quick to recognize patrons who have dropped by before, even remembering what they ate or drank. "You didn't finish your meat the last time," Maurice Dumas told me on my second visit.
Unfortunately, there was a reason for that. The beef was just ordinary except for the broad black stripes left by the grill, although it improved when I swiped bites through its assertive mustard sauce, rounded out with cumin. Like many of the entrees here, it was accompanied by a couple of potato croquettes and a bright fan of vegetables -- carrots, snow peas, asparagus spears -- that coordinated with the whimsical sun painting overhead.
Actually, there are several underwhelming stops on the menu. Leg of lamb is big, juicy and just as unremarkable as the beef; in fact, the flavor is so elusive, at first bite you might not recognize it as lamb. Veal scaloppine, sheathed in an anemic layer of cheese, suffers from a vermouth sauce that is too sweet. Monkfish is cooked several minutes too long, but redeemed by a punch from some capers and olives. "It's not always about the food," a friend reminded me as we looked up from our plates to see another group of diners get the bear hug treatment from the owners. Of the appetizers, the soup of the day, including a robust lentil soup, tends to be reliable, as is the beef carpaccio, decked out with Parmesan curls and mushroom shavings.
Trattoria Liliana turns out to be a nice source for pasta. "I make the ravioli by hand," Maurice Dumas says. "That way I know what's inside and I know it won't fall apart" when he cooks it, he adds.
Indeed, stuffed with Swiss chard and ground veal, his toothsome ravioli is served with sauce that is sweet with onions, pungent with rosemary and tangy with tomatoes; pine nuts lend a delicate crunch. Thin as piano strings, strands of black tagliolini get tossed with tiny clams, olive oil, white wine and enough crushed red pepper to give a soothing dish some sex appeal. Gnocchi, on the other hand, is a plate of pasty potato dumplings, partially saved by a fresh-tasting pesto enriched with cheese.
There's a happy ending to this story: just about any dessert made by Liliana Dumas. In a city where distinctive finales are as rare as a "no comment" from Chris Matthews, her recipes stand out for their purity and restraint. They taste of what they are supposed to be, and in European fashion, they aren't overly sweet. The gelati, in vanilla, chocolate and hazelnut, have just the right dense texture and rich flavors. They are constants on a dessert menu that changes with the chef's whim. Leap at the opportunity to try her moist pistachio cake with layers of nougat mousse, or her clafoutis with fresh raspberries.
Dining at Trattoria Liliana is akin to riding a seesaw. There are dishes, like a fatty veal chop, that lessen the fun. And there are others, like one evening's chocolate hazelnut cake, that simply soar. The one sure thing about a visit here is that you'll leave feeling more pampered than when you arrived.
"A friend turns 50 this month and Dover sole is his favorite entree," writes Tony Santucci of Washington. In his search for a restaurant that serves that firm, flavorsome delicacy, Santucci says, "price is not a consideration; simple but flawless preparation matters more." Several local kitchens do the fish honor. One is Ristorante Tosca (1112 F St. NW; 202-367-1990), where Dover sole ($28) is grilled, splashed with orange- or lemon-infused extra-virgin olive oil and presented with such seasonal vegetables as asparagus, fava beans and peas. Another is Melrose in the Park-Hyatt Hotel (1201 24th St. NW; 202-419-6755), which pan-roasts the fish ($33), arranging it with roasted peppers, chanterelle mushrooms and a prawn reduction vinaigrette. And a third source is Marcel's (2401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-296-1166), which, for $38 to $42, pan-sears the fish and serves it with mustard cream sauce, potato puree and baby spinach.
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