Atmosphere: A small and attractive neighborhood spot with a pro in the kitchen.
Price Range: From antipasto at $3.75 to generous entrees in the $6.25 to $7.50 range and on up to steaks at $8 or $8.50.
Hours: Mondays through Fridays from 11:30 a.m. to midnight; Saturdays and Sundays from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Special Facilities: Accessible by wheelchair. Seating can be arranged for small Reservations: Not necessary, but you might check ahead on weekends.
Credit Cards: American Express.
It was one of those morning trial-heats for the speedy L-1 express down Connecticut avenue, and we'd just roared into that Checkpoint Charlie wooden-barricade maze where the subway construction dominates everything between Porter and Ordway streets. Suddenly, on a singularly high bounce out of my seat, I happened to spot the Caffe Italiano.
That's about the only way you can see it these days, unless you're on foot threading the sidewalk between the buildings and the deep pit where the subway is supposed to roll along in, give or take, a few decades.
Looks like a cheerful little eatery, I said to myself (since no one was sitting next to me). So the other evening, the four of us cracked open one of the two doors there and moved into the first of a pair of small rooms each with maybe a dozen tables. With just the right touch of flattering fanfare, the host directed us to a mid-room table.
The children promptly filed their preliminary reports on the surroundings: Red curtains, red floors, hanging plants and background music that they guessed must be, yep, Italian. In all, a tasteful job of decorating, they noted, which had been enhanced by some interesting art from a local gallery.
If the mums on the table looked pretty pooped from a long weekend, everything else seemed fresh and clean. From our central vantage point we took turns soaking in either the panorama out the front window (a stunning view of George's applicance store, framed by the subway-pit walls) or our round of drinks.
Still another view, we later discovered, is upstairs, where eight more tables awaited diners. As the place began filling up, we noticed that neither the classy decor nor the flair of the host meant that customers' attire had to be fancy; on the contrary, the below-table fashion around the room was denim for all ages.
No one except me was interested in a soup or appetizer - that is, until my selection arrived. It was stracciatella - that's egg drop italiano, at $2.25 - and, believe it, worth every penny.
My mistake, right after the waiter's ceremonial spreading of the proper amount of grated cheese, was to offer tastes to the rest of the family.
Spoons flew frantically, for this was a superb concoction - or at least that's what the soup-lifters at my table kept saying. By the time their arms had stopped swooping the only soup left was in tiny streaks at the bottom of the bowl.
The menu's main events are many, with antipasto at $3.75 or $4, spaghetti from $3.95 plain to $5.25 with bacon bits, lasagna at $4.75 and all other pasta dishes below $5.75. Other offerings, each served with spaghetti or salad, include sole, scampi, trout stuffed with crab meat, veal every-which-way and chicken, in the $6.50 to $7.50 range, and a 12-ounce New York steak and filet mignon at $8 and $8.50 respectively.
As far as our 9-year-old daughter was concerned, there was no contest among the selections; she's always good for a kilometer or so of spaghetti and thus didn't string out her decision. With meat sauce, it is $4.25 and carefully prepared. There's more than enough of it, too, especially when you've just put away the major part of a sizeable salad.
While his sister sliced and twirled, our 11-year-old son was systematically decimating three handsome pieces of veal that were wallowing in butter and lemon sauce, known formally as Veal Francaise at $7.25.
As you may know, there are two basic versions of veal parmigiana in restaurants, the most prevalent being a sort of marinated cardboard caulked with cheese and tomato. Well, my wife reported that here, they serve the other kind - a soft meat cuddled by a flavorful cheese, at $6.75.
But let me tell you about my involtini, which is a word you can point to if you'd like to try a batch of spectacular stuffed veal rolls for $7.50. Each one is approximately the size of a Schwinn handlebar grip, filled with what seems to be ham and herbs.
In addition to a side-dish of that surprisingly good spaghetti, this plate included a fine melange of vegetables cooked up in a tasty sauce. A quick inventory-taking turned up peas, carrots, zucchini, artichoke hearts and potato.
So now how about dessert, coffee or what-have-you? What will all we'd eaten, the temptation to down anything more was a question of matter over mind - and fortunately, matter eked out a narrow victory. We pushed away reluctantly, with a total tab of $35.10 plus tip unanimous in our conclusion that the Cafe Italian deserves a return match as soon as we can train up for it.