Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday, noon to midnight Saturday, noon to 10 p.m. Sunday. Reservations are recommended for parties of six or more. Prices: Dinner for two with appetizers, drinks and desserts costs $35 to $50 including tax and tip. Cards: Visa and Mastercard.
Somewhere along the way in the past six months the small family-owned chain, Pizza 'n Pasta, changed its name to the Italian Oven. Meanwhile, another chain started popping up and calling itself Pizza 'n Pasta; then the former Pizza 'n Pasta opened a new branch in McLean (now called, remember, the Italian Oven).
But if you're not following all this, it doesn't really matter, because what matters is the food: the Italian Ovens have good food, not refined food, but good, solid Italian cooking.
The branches always seem to be crowded and noisy (McLean is no exception), and there's always a line of people waiting, and the waiters are almost always down-to-earth, cheerful and helpful.
Italian Oven has found a formula that really works.
For appetizers, get a fritto misto platter for two -- strips of zucchini and ringlets of tender white squid, barely deep-fried in a light batter. You get a heaping mound for $6.95 -- a good deal for two. Mussels also are good, carefully steamed, with a simple tomato sauce. The fried mozzarella (mozzarella in carroza) is one of the best versions we've tried -- crusty gold, jumping with anchovies and garlic -- but we have the same complaint about this one that we do with most others: too greasy.
The Italian Oven prides itself on its pizzas, but we don't think they're the strongest part of the menu. The owners make a big deal about how the pizzas are cooked in a wood-fired oven, "Exclusive to the East Coast."
And the pizzas are good, no question -- same chewy dough as the calzone, a faint (very faint) flavor of wood smoke -- but they've never overwhelmed us; we like other pizzas around town better (one reason is that we like crispy crust, and these crusts are soft and droopy; it's all a matter of opinion). So we'd order a small pizza as one of our appetizers and then leave plenty of room for the better entrees.
First, naturally, order some pastas. We love the linguine with white clam sauce -- lots of clams in a garlicky, winey broth with chopped green herbs and flecks of red pepper. Try the tagliolini al tutto mare -- thin noodles with shrimp and mussels in a simple cream. And the ravioli are excellent -- round, with crimped edges like miniature pies, and good and chewy.
Second, get some veal and chicken dishes, especially chicken. The chicken cacciatore is terrific -- lots of chicken, at least half a chicken, all tender and juicy, in a thin tomato-wine broth with loads of fat green peppers and onions. Pollo cardinale -- boneless breast stuffed with thin ham and just a bit of cheese, covered with a mushroom cream -- is also good, but tell the waiter you want it cooked less than usual or the kitchen may petrify it.
All the dishes come with spaghetti or good, big salads. There's no printed wine list yet, so ask the manager to recite all the possibilities.