116 W. Broad St., Falls Church 532-7772 Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday. Prices: Dinner appetizers and salads $2.95 to $4.25; pasta and entrees $6.95 to $8.95. Specials higher. Cards: American Express, Carte Blanche, Diners Club, Visa, MasterCard. No nonsmoking section.
Good news travels fast, judging from the steady flow of customers at this three-month-old restaurant, where the combination of moderate prices and delicious home cooking is hard to beat.
Rigoletto's successful start can be attributed in part to the experience of husband and wife owners Michele and Mirella Santillo at their Connecticut Avenue restaurant, Otello, which has an identical menu.
The Santillos have done a good job of transforming the small, plain, high-ceilinged dining room of the former Korean restaurant into a charming and cozy Italian trattoria, with a dropped ceiling of white latticework, rough-plastered white walls hung with baskets and hand-painted pottery, and red and white checked tablecloths. Off to one side, the restaurant's selection of moderately priced Italian wines is stocked in a pseudo wine cellar separated from the rest of the dining room by the architectural suggestion of a wall with two windows and an arched doorway. The total effect of rustic simplicity is appealing, although I sometimes felt as if I had stepped into a museum diorama of Italian village life.
The food, an eclectic gathering from various regions of Italy, is generally well-executed. Entrees are priced under $10, except the specials, which generally run closer to $12. (Mirella Santillo said, however, that there will be modest price increases in the coming weeks, but most entree prices will remain under $10.)
A basket of thick-crusted bread gets things off to a promising start. A hefty slice of the same peasant-style bread forms the basis for bruschetta, in which the bread is lightly brushed with seasoned olive oil and topped with the center cut of a large, ripe tomato. It's a nice touch but, at $1.25, it's a relatively expensive slice of tomato and less than exciting.
To get at the best of this restaurant, go straight for the pasta and seafood, although you might consider a short detour among the appetizers. I enjoyed the sunny combination of grilled red peppers drizzled with olive oil and dotted with Calamata olive pieces. There are also various salads and a few fried items such as zucchini and mozzarella. For $3.95 the waiter puts together a pretty but not thrilling sampling plate of cold, marinated vegetable and seafood salads from the display table in the dining room.
A good move would be to split one of the pastas or one of the entrees, such as the fried calamari ($7.50), as an appetizer. The portion of lightly battered, tender calamari is generous enough for two or three.
Another strength of this kitchen is the consistently good sauces. For example, a cream sauce, wonderfully rich without being heavy, enhanced two pasta selections -- one a spaghetti primavera tossed with cubes of fresh tomatoes and matchstick cuts of zucchini and carrots, the other a mix of meat and cheese tortellini sprinkled with mushroom slices. The pasta is of good quality and cooked to perfection.
I especially enjoyed the refreshingly light tomato sauces, the secret of which, according to the owner, is that chopped fresh tomatoes are heated quickly -- not more than two minutes -- and served immediately. A delicious rendition was a tomato sauce tinged with the rich pungency of Mediterranean olives under a nicely cooked monk fish fillet.
There is a generous portion of veal saltimbocca here, made without the traditional topping of cheese. This version is nonetheless tasty and a good value at $8.25.
An even better veal dish was a special one evening of osso buco ($11.95) -- two thick, fork-tender slices of veal shank served with plenty of flavorful veal stock that also moistened the accompanying green and white fettuccine.
It takes a while to discover any notable missteps, but there were a couple. It's a wonder that the chicken fillets didn't pucker up from the overdose of lemon juice in the sauce -- a slip-up, perhaps, as other sauces were generally well-balanced. But even a good brown sauce couldn't revitalize the tough, gamey cubes of lamb served with artichokes.
For dessert, the cloudlike tiramisu is outstanding and the creamy cannoli delectable. Two of the other possibilities, a strawberry tart and a chocolate mousse cake, were just okay.
The young, red-aproned staff does a creditable job, although one night the usual promptness vanished when it came time to pay the bill.