317 18th St. NW. Phone: 265-6665.
Hours: Noon to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, noon to 11:30 p.m. Friday, 5 to 11:30 p.m. Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m. Sunday.
Credit Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.
Reservations: Required for large parties.
Prices: Lunch $2.75 to $4.95, dinner $3.50 to $6.95.
Since the neighborhood caught on to Spaghetti Garden, the restaurant has been fancied up, the interior refurbished a bit and an upstairs dining room and rooftop cafe added.
Also enlarged were the prices, although Spaghetti Garden is still one of the best restaurant bargains around. Whereas the general price rule used to be "under $5," now it's "under $6," with a shrimp Parmesan thrown in at $6.95 and a veal costalina at $6.50.
Fortunately, all this expansion has not affected the food. The Iranian brothers who own and run the place still serve up hefty portions of straightforward and boldly seasoned Italian food. The food is not subtle or sophisticated, but the ingredients taste fresh and appear to have been carefully chosen. The service is friendly, if sometimes slow. (The menu forewarns: "Rome wasn't built in a day.")
In a city renowned for average pizza, Spaghetti Garden has a decent contender. Its pizza has the right amount of cheese, a fine, chewy dough and a thick sauce that on some days may tend toward salty. Toppings are worth it; the sausage is good quality with a spicy kick, and the mushrooms are the real thing.
You can even get your pizza custom-made if you finagle the waiter for some concession such as only one slice with anchovies.
As for main courses, stick to pasta. Although the noodles are not homemade, they are a commendable brand and cooked al dente. The red sauce is on the sweet side, but it is thick with chunks of tomato. It's safe to venture from red sauce though; fettucine alfredo is a good choice, the noodles coated with a not-too-rich cream.
And manicotti with sausage for $5.45 is a hearty dish, its cheese and tomato sauce oozing from each layer of broad noodles.
Entrees that require trickier preparation and more expensive ingredients are less successful. Given their price, though, the final product is not bad.
Veal Milanese may be overbattered, but underneath it all there is a decent piece of veal. There's nothing really wrong with the chicken Francais; the ivory boneless breasts are cooked to the right doneness even though given a too-generous butter bath.
For dessert, Spaghetti Garden's cannoli is a cannoli with a twist: served stuffed with chunks of pineapple, of all things. Neat idea, but the filling is too liquidy and lacks a creamy taste.
All in all, Spaghetti Garden hasn't lost its Bohemian charm; it's an all-purpose kind of restaurant that there are never enough of in Washington's neighborhoods.