Hours: Daily, 11:30 a.m. to midnight. Atmosphere: Elegantly informal. Price Range: $4.25 to $4.95 for antipasti (appetizers); $6.25 to $6.95 for pasta; $8.95 to $12.95 for entrees. Credit Cards: American Express, Visa, Mastercharge. Reservations: Yes, though we've seen the restaurant empty. Special Facilities: None. Wheelchair access.
We have long been tantalized by the Caffe Italiano, a cheery-looking place one can see from the street again, now that construction of the Cleveland Park Metro station has been completed. Two clippings in the windows, one of them an old "Family Out" review, make the food sound ideal for an outing with children. But the undated reviews are misleading -- they describe dishes and prices that no longer exist. Pasta dishes now cost $2 more than the reviews indicate; main courses cost from $2 to $5 more than they did.
When we arrived, starving, at 7 p.m. on a Sunday evening, only two of the tables in our dining room were occupied. Nevertheless, it was nearly 25 minutes until we got something to eat. By the time the waiter took our order for food (he took orders for drinks instantly), we were so hungry that we ordered a couple of side dishes we hadn't intended to, hoping they might be served quickly.
As a special treat, we ordered an appetizer I was sure the girls would love: mozzarella in carozza ($4.50) -- literally "mozzarella in a carriage," but basically a fancy deep-fried cheese sandwich. One child loved it, the other "yucked" it for an odd taste she couldn't put her finger on (probably anchovy paste), and despite our eagerness to eat anything at all, we two grownups found it somehow unsatisfying -- Americanized and not up to memory.
The minestrone, on the other hand, a hearty vegetable soup ($1.75), was both generous and delicious -- the excellent broth cooked long enough to develop character without becoming senile, the still-recognizable vegetables cooked just to the point of doneness instead of to a mush.
Two tossed salads we had ordered to share ($1.25 each) filled the gap between appetizer and main course nicely. The salads were so uncharacteristically popular with the girls that we asked the waiter, who had made them, for the dressing recipe. (Half vinegar, half oil, basil, garlic powder, red pepper and salt -- not a recipe I'd have tried if I saw it in print).
I had roused the girls from a game of Mad by telling them they would have pasta, so pasta it was, fettucine Alfredo for one, spaghetti with tomato sauce for the other. The girls both loved their orders; we were not so happy with our bites of either. The tomato sauce was terribly thick, more like tomato paste than one would hope for in a simple spaghetti priced at $6.25.
The price of the fettucine -- $6.95 -- was at least somewhat justified by the presence of cheese and cream, though the limp pasta was overpowered by too much cheese -- and at those prices you do not expect overcooked pasta.
Torn by jealousy as the girls ordered pasta and I ordered veal, I convinced the waiter to give me half an order (at half-price) of linguine alla vongole (flat spaghetti with clam sauce), and reluctantly shared it with everyone. The pasta was overcooked as before, but drenched in the most heartening buttery clam sauce I've tasted in ages -- so good that I regretted deeply having ordered the veal instead of a whole order.
As I cannot bring myself to order veal in the supermarket, we both focused on the restaurant's veal specialties, osso bucco for me (stewed veal shank, $10.95) and veal Ivana for my spouse ($10.95). Ivana is the owner-chef and this is her specialty, but if the waiter hadn't recommended it we would never have tried it: brandy, wine, and cheese sauce over veal, with asparagus and artichoke hearts snuggling underneath. That description alone nearly gave me indigestion, but the dish was surprisingly light and tasty and, except for artichoke hearts that still tasted of can, worth recommending.
The osso bucco was boring, so much so that I took it home wrapped in foil and made it into a curry for lunch the next day.
I don't sleep at night if we haven't all had green or yellow vegetables, so we ordered two vegetable side dishes, zucchini and broccoli ($1.75 each). The zucchini was simply ghastly: oily, limp, overcooked, and worse than no vegetable at all. The broccoli was quite nice; a bit overdone for our taste (mind you, we don't expect everything to crunch), but fresh, well-seasoned, and topped with just the right proportion of grated cheese.
We should have stopped there. Nobody really wanted dessert, but the review outside said that their cannoli were wonderful and their ice cream homemade. So we ordered one tortone, one spumoni, and two cannoli ($1.75 each). The cannoli were inedible, the cylindrical pastries soggy, the filling a joke. Nobody liked the spumoni (ice cream dotted with candied fruit), but then I never have liked it so I can't say it was worse than any other (if it was homemade, though, I'm Mae West). My three gelatophiles shared the tortoni, which I found passable.
One child had a Coke (75 cents), we shared a half carafe of red wine, and ordered a single cup of espresso with dessert ($1, and good). A bit more than usual, so when I asked my economic adviser what he thought the bill would come to he guessed $45, maybe $50. I thought that sounded regrettable, but right. Imagine our surprise, then, when we got a bill for $66.70.
The problem with Caffe Italiano is that you think you are overindulging in hearty family fare, served a bit slowly perhaps, but with charm. You think that the kitchen is uneven, and the menu is loaded with clunkers, but it's a family restaurant.You think this, but you're wrong. This is expense account territory, but I would question the acumen of anyone who brought me here for a business meal.
You want to love a restaurant that makes clam sauce like the clam sauce at Caffe Italiano, a restaurant that feels good, that looks pretty -- but Caffee Italiano is too expensive and erratic to be lovable.