2218 Wisconsin Ave. NW 337-3030 Hours: 11 to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Prices: Lunch appetizers $1.50 to $6.50, sandwiches and entrees $3.50 to $10.95; dinner appetizers $1.75 to $6.95, entrees $7.95 to $18.95. Cards: All major cards accepted.
No, this isn't the ritzy-glitzy St. Regis of hotel fame we're talking about. Rather, it's the 17th-century Alpine monk, revered for his hospitality, for whom this Washington restaurant is named. And rightly so. No where else are you likely to feel so welcome for so little money. What other restaurateur not only remembers your face, but also greets you by name after a single visit? Ambrose Ramella, the genial host of the St. Regis, does all that and more, occasionally breaking into song as he sweeps through the dining room, pampering newcomers and regulars alike. This guy would be a great salesman, you think. (And, in fact, the broiled veal chop he recommended one night deserved all the accolades he gave it.)
The waiters and waitresses, most of whom are nearly as doting as Ramella, appear to have been hired from Central Casting. If they're not overly affectionate, at least they're interesting, such as the wise-cracking waiter who responded to our request for "another round" of drinks by drawing an imaginary circle on the table. From the way he worked the dining room that evening, we deduced he must have trained by hawking food at Redskins Park. His endearingly brusque manner became less amusing when he mixed up our orders, so that one member of our party sat for 10 minutes while the kitchen scrambled to correct the mistake. On the other hand, a conversant and motherly waitress went out of her way on several occasions, steering us toward the best of the menu and looking after our needs with the conscientiousness of a good host. So given the abundance of service -- which can be both excellent and erratic -- food sometimes seems an afterthought.
Appetizers are not a highlight here. And there's not much to select from either after the server ticks off a list of things the kitchen doesn't have: cherrystone clams, oysters and smoked salmon were all unavailable at lunch recently. What's left isn't of much interest: mushrooms in garlic and parsley; an antipasto platter constructed from mediocre cold cuts and a dab of tuna fish salad on iceberg lettuce; and a satisfactory if unexceptional homemade chicken soup.
Of the starters, the lone winner was the mussels marinara, a mountain of small, meaty crustaceans buried beneath a heady, chunky tomato sauce that smacked of an Italian mama's kitchen.
Things improve considerably with the main dishes -- the pastas in particular have been rather good, and substantial in size. One standout is the homemade ravioli. The light wrappers, dusted with parmesan, come plumped with nutmeg-scented, ground meat-and-spinach fillings and are further enhanced by a pleasant tomato sauce that tasted made from scratch. Another pasta dish, linguine carbonara, is a satisfying rendition of that Italian classic.
Pay attention to the daily specials. That thick, succulent $15 veal chop we were encouraged to try was an amazing bargain, accompanied by a delicious mound of mixed vegetables that our waiter called "stir-fried" but tasted of longer cooking.
Among the Italian selections are a satisfying and garlic-perfumed dish of chicken teamed with mushrooms and white wine sauce, an adequate mixed seafood and pasta combination, and a decent plate of saltimbocca, thinly sliced veal topped with a chewy piece of prosciutto and sliced mushrooms in a marsala sauce. No surprises there. What is a surprise is the fine beef brochette -- big chunks of well-seasoned, expertly cooked meat, skewered with pieces of tomato, browned onion and squash, all of which rests atop a bed of moist rice. The accompanying onion-laced brown gravy suits this dish well.
Luncheon selections include a host of sandwiches -- including a hefty platter of bready crab cakes served with fine coleslaw and french fries -- and an abbreviated version of the dinner menu.
The St. Regis' Italian American bent is underscored at dessert. Espresso and cappuccino are out of the question. Fine dark coffee is not, however, and neither are a very respectable creme caramel (adrift in canned whipped topping, unfortunately) and a comforting dish of tortoni. Tom Sietsema is on the staff of The Washington Post Food section.