There are perhaps five reasons for chancing a visit to Isola Verde, a relatively new Italian restaurant in Adams-Morgan, and none of them has anything to do with pasta or veal.
Five Ethiopian dishes, listed almost as an afterthought on the back of the menu, are without a doubt this restaurant's best efforts. This should come as no surprise, since the restaurant is operated by Ethiopians.
But a meal at Isola Verde so tries one's patience -- not to mention one's palate on occasion -- that the general appeal of these few dishes is greatly overshadowed by inept service and a bare-bones dining room that borders on the desultory.
Certainly communication is a big problem here. On one occasion, a waitress -- none too comfortable with English, let alone the menu -- committed to memory orders for six dishes without writing anything down. Not only did she serve the wrong dishes to the wrong customers, but she also presented our table with items we didn't even order.
Timing is also unpredictable. Dinner can mean hour-long gaps between courses, or appetizers being served simultaneously with entrees. Only one thing's for sure -- lingering is a given here. (Be warned: without ordering appetizers or dessert, lunch can stretch into a two-hour affair.)
Unless the manager is assisting, service can be almost nonexistent -- on more than a few occasions we've had to track the staff down for napkins, drink orders and checks. Such inattention might be overlooked in a crowded eatery, but on three visits to Isola Verde, my companions and I were the only diners.
Moreover, the long waits and general haphazardness can't be justified with what arrives from the kitchen, for most of the dishes have been only adequate at best.
To start out, there is a varied selection of Italian hors d'oeuvres, such as eggs stuffed with spinach, ricotta cheese and veal; steamed broccoli with cheese, and fresh green beans tossed in olive oil, garlic and lemon juice. All sounded appetizing, but all proved to be as bland and nondescript as the setting. The broccoli arrived limp and dull gray-green from oversteaming, leached of flavor. Certainly the rubbery cover of mozzarella was no help to this vegetable. And what Isola Verde passed off as an antipasto salad would have outraged any self-respecting Italian. This rendition was no more than a humble bed of iceberg lettuce, topped with hard-cooked eggs, a few strips of decent salami and several anchovies.
Soups proved better, but not much. Zuppa pavese, a full-flavored chicken broth served with a poached egg, was missing its accompaniments of toasted bread and cheese rounds. And as flavorful as the beef-stock-based minestrone was, one really had to search the bowl for signs of vegetables.
The menu emphasizes pasta, but what was sampled was excruciatingly bland. Moreover, looks can be deceiving: a generous portion of steaming lasagna had a vaguely sweet tomato sauce that bore the only hint of much seasoning. On the other hand, about the only thing one could taste from a colorful platter of pasta primavera -- vastly undercooked spinach fettuccini topped with chunks of firm, fresh vegetables -- was an overdose of salt and garlic.
As for most of the other Italian entrees, those featuring chicken and veal could have been interchanged without anyone noticing, so similar were the textures and sauces.
Which brings us to the best part of the menu, the Ethiopian entrees, which were consistently handled better than anything else we tasted. Served with injera, a crepe that serves as an eating utensil, these entrees featured an especially satisfying dish of "kitfo" (the Ethiopian version of steak tartare, raw chopped beef tenderloin seasoned with mitmita), and a simple, pleasantly spicy vegetarian dish of cooked lentils, chickpeas, potato cubes and carrots. Goden tibsi was another treat, a plate of crusty, peppery lamb ribs surrounded by an agreeable stew of onions and green peppers.
If it misses at Italian fare, Isola Verde can pleasantly surprise us with its other selections. But considering that this newcomer shares its neighborhood with at least seven Ethiopian restaurants -- most of which offer more in terms of variety and service -- Isola Verde faces formidable competition indeed.