Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. till 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 5 till 10:30 p.m. Prices: dinner entrees: $7.95-13.95. Cards: American Express, Carte Blanche, Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa.
There is something about Italian cuisine that makes gluttons of us all. Soft, spicy, sensual, it inspires as lavish a hand at the table as in the kitchen.
This coolly pretty pioneer of lower Pennsylvania Avenue, an offshoot of the uptown eaterie of the same name, is a devout disciple of abondanza. Bread (full loaves per basket) is hot and crusty; soups are served in bowls deep enough for pasta; linguini with seafood is topped with 20 three-inch mussels, so tender they might be the gustatory equivalent of "I Pagliacchi."
The only problem is, since excess is a virtue of the cooking, you have to be careful that it doesn't become a vice of the consumption. This is one place where enough is often too much (even in the name: over the front door a new paint job announces "Ristorante Caffe Italiano").
Although the menu notes that the dozen or so pastas can be ordered in half portions as appetizers, they tend to show up erratically as full servings (on the bill as well). And those with cream sauces occasionally look more like victims of an avalanche, buried under a layer of silken but satiating sauce.
Fettucini alfredo is served in a slimmer, more flattering wrap of white, but an older, more aggressive cheese might be even better. The cannelloni stuffing is perhaps a trifle too delicate when faced with the sauce; the spicier carbonara or vongole (clam) sauces might be less stunning, especially only halfway through the meal.
But the pastas themselves are masterpieces -- especially the tortellini, exceptionally tender and elastic dough deftly stuffed and delicately cooked; and the linguini, sturdy and supple without a hint of core. In fact, the pasta options alone should provide the Caffe with plenty of Capitol Hill constituents.
The fried mozzarella -- thick, crispy and not greasy -- is a better bet here than in many places. The house salad is a plate of pleasantly mixed greens with a spattering of garbanzos and cured olives for texture; the vinaigrette is bright and not oily.
There also are a handful of vegetables that can be ordered as appetizers, including fried zucchini and sauteed mushrooms; but the broccoli "with garlic and fennel" is strictly for the stout of heart -- or for the haunted. Enough garlic is minced into this dish to kill a vampire (or a budding romance). If the broccoli is cooked too long, as it sometimes is, the whole thing can be spread on bread, strong as anchovy paste.
Fortunately, the Fearless Vampire Killers don't seem to have the same stake in the entrees -- in fact, a rather modest seasoning seems the norm.
Chicken (offered in a half-dozen versions that wing from cheese to cacciatore to mushrooms and artichokes) is generous and tender even when pieced. Veal is gracefully handled, tangoing as well with tomatoes as with the cream-and-cognac sauce that often tries to lead.
For the pasta-shocked, there are fish and seafood alternatives, ranging from stuffed trout to garlic shrimp (I'm not sure how the FVK's do with that) to that preeminent creation, zuppa de pesce.
There are still a few rough moments -- the dish that was never delivered (and unknowingly included by the cashier); a slight understaffing, combined with a tendency to serve all nonentrees at a single time, which can result in undeservedly chilly pastas and unexpected leisure. I wish the pepper grinder had reappeared after the salad course, too, but that's easily remedied.
The decor is handsome (hunter green and piazza peach), the wine list strong and not too long, and the food always good and sometimes quite fine.
So eat! When extremism in the digestion is no vice, moderation in the pasta is no virtue.