* 1 star) Al Crostino
1324 U St. NW
Open: 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. AE, M, V. Smoking at the bar. Street parking. Metro: U Street/Cardozo. Prices: appetizers $5.50 to $15, entrees $11 to $25. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $60 per person.
* (1 star) Dino
3435 Connecticut Ave. NW
Open: 5 to 10:30 p.m. daily. AE, V, MC. No smoking. Street parking. Metro: Cleveland Park. Prices: appetizers $1.75 to $12, entrees $11 to $18. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $50 per person.
It's hard to resist the charms of Luigi Diotaiuti, the gregarious owner of Al Tiramisu in Dupont Circle. The last time I dropped by his Italian shoebox, I watched first as he seated a couple at a tiny table next to a painting of Neapolitan seascape ("Ah, you have a view!") and then roamed around the room, gleefully waving a bowl of fresh truffles under the noses of appreciative patrons. While the space is cramped and noisy, sparkling seafood and delectable pastas make up for those distractions. So when I heard Diotaiuti was taking over the quarters of the short-lived Opera on U Street NW, I was thrilled. The neighborhood deserves a good Italian kitchen, and the restaurateur's idea of small plates of Italian food and quality wines by the glass is precisely how many of us prefer to eat these days.
Like its sibling, Al Crostino is welcoming. In the opening weeks, Diotaiuti presided over the dining room, an engaging master of ceremonies in a white chef's jacket. As at Al Tiramisu, the two-level, lime green-and-lemon yellow space is pint-sized. "I wonder if they have tables in the bathroom," a friend joked after she and I were seated in a narrow corridor behind the central dining area.
As a diner might expect, there are crostini on the menu. The selections are subject to change but have included toasted rounds of bread slathered with a mild chicken liver pate and anchovy-laced mozzarella -- my favorites -- as well as more routine minced roasted vegetables and porcini mushrooms. Beyond those nibbles, the menu reads much like that of Al Tiramisu, offering skewered seafood, lamb chops with a glaze of honey and balsamic vinegar, and, irritatingly, specials whose prices don't get recited by the server but are outside the average price of what's listed.
There have been some perfectly pleasant moments during my visits. The kitchen proves that scallops and lima beans are suited for one another when the seafood is sweet and fresh and the vegetable is whipped into a silken, pale green puree for the scallop to sit on. Escolar is tiled in slices of zucchini so thin you can read through them and is lapped with a creamy and delicate sauce of mascarpone and prosecco. Lovely. Pastas include pillowy hats stuffed with minced mushrooms and ricotta cheese gilded with a buttery, sage-scented moistener. And the aforementioned trio of tiny lamb chops gets a nice boost from its tart-sweet sauce -- but not from the dull clump of chard that serves as an escort, along with slices of ordinary roast potato.
Other dishes taste as if they hail from a different kitchen. The squid and shrimp skewer I gravitate to at Al Tiramisu is offered here as just some ordinary seafood in a tasteless crumb coating. I ordered the sliced steak after a server praised it as "off the hook!"; what I got was juicy but surprisingly tame, despite a scattering of shredded arugula and rosemary needles on the beef. Creme caramel makes me yawn, too, and "crunchy Italian cookies" turn out to be ordinary bite-size biscotti. Cheese -- and another glass of vino -- make for a stronger ending at what can only be summed up as Tiramisu Lite.
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I CAN PROMISE YOU THIS MUCH about Dino: You will drink very well there. Much as I miss the previous occupant on this street corner in Cleveland Park -- the elegant, Asian-inspired Yanyu -- I applaud a restaurant that cares about tracking down select wine producers and doesn't charge you a fortune for doing so. Co-owner Dean Gold has assembled a terrific collection of things to sip, sometimes from less obvious regions of Italy, and does what savvy restaurateurs are inclined to do these days: pours those gems by the splash, the glass and the bottle. Making the rounds of tables, he is clearly delighted to share his expertise and excitement. After I ordered a bottle of the 1998 Costanti Brunello di Montalcino one evening, the bearded docent gave me a verbal thumbs up. "That guy's a friend of mine!" he exclaimed, pointing to the name of producer Andrea Costanti on the label.
A diner can also eat well at Dino, but it takes some sifting to separate what's worthwhile from what's mediocre, and some patience to sort through the meandering menu. Weighing in with 10 categories -- think crostini, antipasti, cheese, appetizers, entrees, sandwiches, salads and more -- including a sheet of daily specials, the offerings want to be all things to all people and are less for that ambition. Fewer, better executed dishes would be my preference.
Gold's previous life, as a purchaser for Whole Foods Market, is evident at the table, where bread is swabbed in good olive oil, winey prosciutto tastes long-aged because it is, and the cheese selection rivals carts at much hauter restaurants. Too bad the kitchen doesn't always play along. Lovely tomatoes in four colors are overwhelmed by a flood of balsamic vinegar, and sardines are cooked to a fishy mush, then further abused with a heavy layer of dessert-sweet onions and raisins. Pomegranate-glazed quail is mouth-puckering in its tartness, and brined chicken shows up tough. An American sensibility pops up in Buca di Beppo-size bowls of pasta (the best of which is pappardelle tossed with crumbled boar sausage) and a perky color scheme that suggests Disney rather than rustic Italian.
Occasionally, a preparation better reflects its country of inspiration. Rotisserie-cooked lamb showcases meat of prime savor, and whole sea bass is prepared as it might be in Italy -- simply with lemon and olive oil. A side dish of grilled vegetables brings together velvety mushroom caps, tiny yellow squash and radicchio, seasoned just right to allow their flavors to shine.
The owner's enthusiasm trickles down to the staff. Somehow, Gold found a bunch of eager and efficient servers to promote his menu and discuss his philosophy. At a time when even the better restaurants go begging for good help, this is no small feat. The staff will encourage you to focus on the specials, and chances are, you'll be glad you followed the advice. One day's catch -- swordfish arranged with green and yellow beans in a loose stack, and excited with an anchovy-laced vinaigrette -- produced a sublime treat. I only wish there were more such satisfying encounters at Dino.
Remember what Gold did before this, and stick with cheese for dessert, because the alternatives are third-rate versions of Italian crowd-pleasers. Chocolate-flavored panna cotta is dense and dull, seemingly thickened with corn starch; a nectarine croustade does the lush fruit injustice with a frame of pastry that tastes like the frozen commercial stuff. And the gelati don't begin to compare to the fabulous ice creams scooped up at Washington's 2 Amys pizzeria.
Dino is a mixed bag of fine wines and slapdash cooking, attentive service and a setting that seems at odds with its menu. Somewhere inside, there's a good restaurant beating; I wish its pulse were stronger.
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