Long before Washington was blanketed with chic Italian eateries -- and pasta was accorded the status of haute cuisine -- there was Marrocco's, a middle-of-the-road Italian restaurant known for its uncomplicated menu and its business-lunch appeal.
The Pennsylvania Avenue establishment closed in March last year, only to reopen the following September in digs as foreign to the original as could be imagined.
Esthetically, the change is a welcome one, and the transformation is indeed impressive: the second-story dining room (diners enter through a ground-floor cocktail lounge) is an upscale, spacious setting, awash in tones of dusty pink and beige. Scattered about are ficus trees, their limbs strung with lights. Equally enhancing are the wrap-around windows, which lend an airy feel and offer a sweeping view of the business district (about as glamorous a view as one could hope for).
The smartly turned-out staff looks genuinely pleased to have you there for a meal. Indeed, service has been, by and large, as proficient as one would want, helpful and unobtrusive.
It's all a pleasant introduction to what can be a fair-to-middling dining experience. And if pasta is what you opt for, the meal is as likely to appeal to the palate as the restaurant appeals to the eye, for pasta remains this restaurant's strong suit.
There are cold and hot appetizers from which to choose, including such routine items as minestrone (an adequate, peppery rendition of the soup), prosciutto and melon, and plates of antipasto. A salad of mozzarella and tomatoes was pretty ordinary stuff -- the tomatoes pink, the bed of lettuce plain old iceberg -- when we tried it. And an order of fried calamari was little better than nondescript golden breading surrounding chewy little ringlets of squid, served with a sweet, commercial-tasting cocktail sauce.
Seafood in general has been mishandled, perhaps no more so than in a hot seafood appetizer that featured mussels that were, from bite to bite, either succulent and fresh-tasting or rubbery and off-flavored. A piquant, tomato-based sauce did little to support the dish. Ditto the two crumb-topped, heavily seasoned clams that were doused with an ocean of salt.
As a matter of fact, I'd skip the appetizers altogether and head straight for most any of the pasta dishes, which are less refined than they are homey and reliable. One of Marrocco's best efforts is linguine alla carbonara, a mound of flat noodles, topped with a rich white cream sauce, bacon and onions. It's an interesting balance of textures and tastes, smooth and filling. Another good dish has been spaghetti with pesto.
Alternately, and if the pollo alla scarpariello (chicken, diced sausage and sauteed mushrooms) is any measure, I'd opt for poultry. The entree we sampled was tender, juicy chicken slices, bathed in a sauce redolent of fennel. There are also a simple grilled chicken, a lemon-butter selection, and chicken paired with mushrooms, olives, artichoke hearts and marsala.
The only veal dish we tasted -- vitello alla valdostana -- featured a perfectly adequate piece of meat, but the topping of ham and fontina cheese proved exceptionally salty. The vegetable accompaniment -- lightly cooked brussels sprouts and tender baby potatoes in their skins -- fared better, but couldn't cover for the entree's flaw.
Desserts can vary greatly, we've discovered. The same table that orders a delicious, fine-textured white chocolate cake can also make the mistake of ordering a paperweight-heavy, super-sweet cannoli, stuffed with a grainy, nutmeg-spiked paste ofconfectioners' sugar. The rum-tinged ice cream, topped with almond slices, strongly resembled the ice cream one finds in fast food places. And while the coffee is a fine, strong brew, the cappuccino has been on the bitter side on recent visits.
It's surprisingly inexpensive for such a pretty establishment, and there are some perfectly adequate meals to be had, but Marrocco's remains a reliably unexceptional restaurant.