Anyone who has been to the circus knows that it's usually best the first time around. Subsequent visits always seem to diminish the experience slightly. Eventually, you start noticing things such as cracks in the tent and frayed costumes even though you still have a good time.

That's kind of what it's like to dine at Circo (Italian for circus) at Courthouse Plaza in Clarendon. The decor is cheery and festive, with yellow walls, a retro neon clock, harlequin print fabric on the booths and giant papier-ma^che{acute} circus animals lined up on a platform suspended from the ceiling.

The menu sounds promising -- featuring individual pizzas such as prosciutto, arugula and smoked mozzarella; or red potato, onion, rosemary and Fontina cheese -- and many other Italian dishes. These include grilled polenta with asparagus and imported Parmesan, and Italian sausages with grapes and balsamic vinegar.

But as you work your way through the menu, you realize that some of the star acts miss the mark, though one surprise winner definitely deserves touting.

Let's start with the winner: grilled Tuscan-style pork ribs, a dish that puts an Italian accent on classic American southern fare. Chef Yunis Hernandez says it's not one of the most popular choices among the business people and neighborhood patrons who make up most of Circo's clientele, but it should be.

The ribs are marinated in a delicious mix of olive oil, lemon juice, rosemary, anchovy paste, crushed red pepper and mashed calamata olives. The purple olives give the ribs their rich, dark color and robust flavor.

The succulent meat falls right off the bone as soon as you bite in; no tug of war is necessary. Unfortunately, the colorless pile of polenta that accompanies the ribs tastes as bland as it looks.

Given the success of the ribs, I had high hopes for the grilled T-bone steak "Florentina," which, if accuracy counts, should be "Fiorentina." At $17.95, it's the most expensive item on the dinner menu. But the meat was tough and chewy and strewn with way too many leaves of wilted sage that completely overpowered the flavor.

One of my dining companions was disappointed with her order of orecchiette pasta with broccoli rabe and sausage, which I also sampled. Though the crumbled sausage was good, and there was plenty of it, the broccoli was undercooked and so bitter that my friend left the dish pretty much untouched.

Among the starters, shrimp and eggplant bisque is one of the best choices, with diced red peppers, celery, eggplant and tomatoes and half-and-half to add creaminess. Spices in the soup are more Cajun than Italian. That is not surprising, given that Circo's owner is Scott Noble, owner of RT's Seafood Kitchen next door, and RT's Restaurant in Alexandria, both of which offer Cajun cooking.

Noble, who also owns the Warehouse and the Wharf, both in Alexandria, said he decided to venture into Italian food when he bought the space for Circo because the kitchen was equipped with a pizza oven.

Circo's pizzas aren't bad. In fact, the toppings are quite good, though the crust is more like a flat bread than a true pizza crust. Prosciutto, arugula and smoked mozzarella make for a lovely combination.

Chef Hernandez's tomato sauce is first-rate, cooked down just enough to give it lots of flavor and with just enough hot pepper to add a little kick. The sauce proved too spicy for my young son, though, so the kitchen quickly whipped up a plate of buttered linguine that was just right for him.

That is one reason I like Circo despite some of the kitchen's failures. It's a friendly place and accommodating. The wine list, which features mostly Italian vintages, is small but thoughtful and completely affordable. Almost all of the selections can be ordered by the glass as well as the bottle.

There's also a small but varied selection of beer, by the bottle or on tap. Desserts include baked chocolate custard, berries with mascarpone cream and gelato.

Circo may not be the greatest show on earth, but it does have a couple of acts worth catching.

Got a restaurant recommendation? E-mail Domenica Marchetti at

Arlington's Circo Italian restaurant is decorated with bright colors and papier-ma^che{acute} circus animals. Below, clockwise from top: San Francisco-style cioppino, grilled polenta with asparagus, stuffed red pepper with prosciutto and olives, and grilled salmon fillet.