Today it's hello and hooray to a friendly new Italian casa that is openly courting families from the toddling spaghetti-slurpers to the budget-conscious gourmets of the 65-and-over set. Small, informal and delightfully ambitious is the Casa di Firenze, the new kid on the block of Macomb Street NW, just off Wisconsin Avenue NW.
Back in the middle ages, when I was half my size and age, this place used to be Churchill's, renowned watering hole for the neighborhood's aimless adolescents. Later it became the Wit's End (which it apparently came to, for good, not long ago).
There's no resemblance now, except for the schooners of draft beer that go today for $1.25 instead of a quarter. Behind big wooden doors is a neat and homey pair of rooms, each with maybe a dozen tables; in the basement there's a little pub that serves live entertainment.
"We love the children, so bring them along," chirps the menu, noting that for kids under 12 there are four offerings at $2.50: spaghetti with meat balls, chicken cacciatore, lasagna or egg noodles al fredo. Each of these dinners includes a small garden salad, roll and butter, milk or soda and ice cream.
Unfortunately, our lone eligible contestant for this generous offer was elsewhere for the evening. Her brother, who is 12, has more than established his credentials as a full-fleged consumer. (The next goal here is to hit 65, since all who have done so may enjoy a 10 percent discount on every entree).
Already on this early evening there were many representatives of all age groups, clustered around the pairs of fresh red and white carnations on each table.
The three of us were seated in the room to the left as you enter, where a huge mural, three barrels with taps and a bunch of fake grapes offset the white stucco walls and archways.
Two of those schooners of beer and a cola got things rolling, and in the course a basket of Italian bread and domestic butter arrived to replace conversation with consumption.
Next came zuppa time, which meant a thick, dark, vegetable-filled minestrone, $1.95, for our son, and for the same price, a cheesy-snapply Stracciatella alla Firenze -- that's good ole homemade chicken noodle soup with flakes of egg and cheese -- for old dad. Chalk up two victories for the Casa.
Soup proved a wise move on another count, too, for service got a little pokey, though our waiter couldn't have been more pleasant about it. Things were "a bit hectic," he confided, plying us craftily with more of that good bread.
Perhaps you're wondering what else we ordered. Well, just as we began to wonder, too, it did arrive. From an all-purpose selection of everything from pasta and pizza at $4.50 to fancy flounder and New York steak at $8.50, came a great parade of hits.
The true test, of course, is veal -- and this time the tester was our young partner. Vitello alla Francese, $7.75, is the one that's sauteed in butter and topped with lemon sauce. That's all I know about it, because it disappeared while I was chatting briefly with my wife. Only a sly grin gave us some idea of how good it had been.
The Manicotti della Casa di Firenze, $4.95, a homemade pasta stuffed with ricotta cheese and spinach and topped with a secret sauce, was swiftly classified superb by my wife.
I'd chosen to wing it with a chicken order, this one entitled Petti di Pollo alla Firenze, $5.75, which was baked with butter, oregano and garlic, and which came out crisp and buttery. It was complemented, too, with a fine side order of spaghetti with meat balls.
Maybe because of the delay, or maybe because the place was only a week or so old, the waiter whistled over with two snorts of amoretto, compliments of Florence and George whose casa this is.
Now, flattery will get them somewhere, but we were probably there already. The moderate statement for our successful soundings here came to $27.86 plus tip, which one could easily undercut with more watchfulness.
Since our standard Italian dinner role is incognito, we didn't meet Florence or George. But we do have a strong hunch that they've got a good thing going for any family in search of a small and friendly haven serving thoughtfully prepared and varied selections.