Vivande Ristorante 1250 23rd St. NW 223-0747 Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week. Prices: Appetizers, $3.25 to $5.95; main dishes, $5.95 to $15.75; desserts, $2.95 to $3.75. Cards: American Express, Carte Blanche, Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa.
Primi Piatti. Paolo's. Obelisk.
Lately, it seems, Italian restaurants have been cropping up like reruns of "It's a Wonderful Life" on television. And now the West End is all the more attractive for the latest such entry, Vivande Ristorante, in the Embassy Suites Hotel.
Like a mug of hot chocolate on a cold winter's day, Vivande is a welcome image. And that pretty picture includes the whimsically decorated dining room, a vivid and contemporary trattoria combining splashy artwork with well-spaced, comfortable faux stone tables. The appointments -- from a sky-blue ceiling touched with wisps of white and studded with tiny lights, to the rustic floral service plates -- are charming.
No matter the weather outside, the spirit indoors is friendly and warm.
The attraction doesn't stop there, though. The menu, relatively brief by Italian restaurant standards, is full of intriguing possibilities. Along with the more common lasagna and linguine dishes, the selection of fresh pasta includes black fettuccine made with squid ink, and herbed fettuccine with duck sauce. Then, there are a variety of carpaccio, almost translucent slices of raw beef served in combination with radicchio and parmesan cheese, earthy wild mushrooms, and arugula and mustard. The prettily designed desserts have been no less tempting.
Vivande's newness is most evident in the service staff, which smothers you with attention ("Welcome to Vivande!" they enthusiastically chirp as you're seated). The shtick sounds a bit scripted -- and the hovering and constant inquiries can be annoying at times -- but the energy and smiles appear genuine. On the whole, the staff appears well-briefed on the menu -- and rehearsed to the point that a waitress might admonish the kitchen for forgetting to put a lemon garnish on a plate of seafood.
Suitable companions to the complimentary fat, crusty bread sticks that precede a meal can be found among the appetizers. Don't miss the soups, one day a cream of mushroom that touted a small cave's worth of fleshy dark fungi, or from the standing menu, a light, salad-like minestrone, embellished with barely cooked, diced onion, celery, carrots and tomatoes. Even the house salad is a pretty arrangement of greens, freshly grated parmesan and tangy dressing (better is the lively orange and raddichio salad, spiked with fennel). And among the carpaccio selections, the simple combination of full-flavored beef with radicchio with aged parmesan is a winner. (In comparison, the dry veal carpaccio with shrimp was bland, though its flavor was somewhat bolstered with a drizzle of fruity olive oil, a bottle of which graces each tabletop.)
Pasta entrees combine the familiar with the upscale: The lasagna is about as meaty as that dish gets, but it lacked much punch, and was skimpy with the ricotta. The savory half-moon-shaped ravioli, on the other hand, were supple purses plumped with herby pesto, treated to a fine wash of a tomato sauce. And I wouldn't miss the elegant-looking black fettuccine, blended with fresh-tasting shrimp and scallops, that tastes as good as it looks.
The pizzas are also quite good, individual-size rounds of thin, yeasty dough topped with the likes of fresh vegetables, four cheeses, ground beef, and -- my favorite -- halved fresh shrimp teamed with a scattering of scallops.
I've been less enamored of the pricier fish dishes here, including the wan grilled salmon, which was not much helped by an accompanying garnish of bitter-tasting baked leeks.
You won't find the usual cannoli or spumoni among the desserts. But you will be offered gelato; a generous serving of very good, fluffy and rather boozy tirami su, a cake; and a decadent chocolate-almond cake set on a pool of raspberry sauce, sogno nero. Another fine choice is the pear poached in red wine, fanned out on a layer of dark chocolate, etched with mascarpone, sweetened cream cheese.
From start to finish, Vivande ably fills the gap between the inexpensive mom-and-pop spaghetti houses and the swanky, high-ticket pasta purveyors. Here, comfort, thoughtful accents and moderate prices add up to a delicious excursion.Tom Sietsema is on the staff of The Washington Post Food section.