Long before there was trendy Restaurant Row in downtown Bethesda, with fusion and tapas and sushi and Thai cheek by jowl, there was a gentler, more traditional restaurant enclave, which we might call NOOG (North of Old Georgetown Road, in New York parlance).
Italian restaurants, many of them family-owned, were the backbone of NOOG, offering suburban Maryland residents a taste of that country's varied cuisines, served up by chefs whose repertoires reflected the region from which they emigrated.
The buzz may be South of Old Georgetown (SOOG) now, but some of those traditional Italian places are still welcoming customers as if they were family and serving pretty good food, too.
Positano and Buon Giorno opened a couple of blocks apart on Norfolk Avenue (NOOG) within two years of each other in the mid-1970s. The Traettino and Ginepro families, who own the two restaurants, respectively, both include one spouse from the south of Italy and one from the north, to opposite effects.
The Traettinos are from Positano and the Veneto (the area north of Venice), and their restaurant more reflects the south; the Ginepros are from Genoa and Sicily, and theirs is much more northern Italian.
Positano, now housed in a series of buildings along nearby Fairmont Avenue, has the feel of a small Italian village -- an entire village. The restaurant features terra cotta tile floors, terra cotta tile roofs, faux grape vines, a warren of dining rooms, rustic-style chairs (which, like those in Italy, aren't particularly comfortable), and realistic murals of Venice, though most of the dishes aren't remotely Venetian.
Family is important: We were greeted by Maurizio, a second cousin of owner Luigi Traettino, and almost every night at least one large exuberant Italian family is gathered around a table celebrating a birthday or anniversary.
The menu is little different from what one might find in a trattoria in Rome or along the Amalfi coast: pasta e fagioli (pasta and bean soup), lasagne, manicotti, penne or ravioli with marinara sauce, spaghetti with meatballs, and several veal and chicken preparations. The house carafe is a perfectly suited accompaniment.
The white pizza was excellent, garlicky and chewy with cheese on one visit, but a bit dry on another. The cannelloni, stuffed with a rustic meat filling of chicken, veal and cheese, is made of exquisitely thin pasta and accompanied by a fresh-tasting chunky tomato sauce. On another night, the tomato sauce with the homemade gnocchi wasn't quite so enticing.
The veal was fork tender and moist, whether prepared Milanese style (flattened and breaded), piccata (with a lemon caper sauce) or Marsala (with a wine mushroom sauce). Each of the sauces complemented rather than overwhelmed the delicate meat.
The ice cream desserts were best: the traditional fruit- and nut-laden spumoni and the chocolate-dipped tartufo.
In contrast, Buon Giorno is a study in understatement. It has two intimate dining rooms, each wrapped in pale yellow, one with floor-to-ceiling windows draped in sheers. The upholstered chairs -- some pale, others a striking raspberry -- invite one to linger and be fussed over by the attentive waiters.
At 90, Arcide Ginepro is the dean of the local Italian culinary community and though 27 years after he, his wife and daughter founded the restaurant he no longer presides over the kitchen at night, he spends each afternoon there making the pasta and overseeing other preparations. His wife, Angela, handles the reservations and phone calls during the day. Daughter Daniela Nicotra manages the house at night.
Buon Giorno, too, sticks with the traditional, eschewing trendy but not-very-Italian come-ons such as foie gras or tuna tartare. But who needs those when there is fresh fennel salad, shaved thin as paper, and layered with shavings of mushroom and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese? Or tagliatelle with an earthy porcini sauce or linguine with mussels, shrimp, calamari and clams in an oil and garlic sauce. Or veal-stuffed ravioli napped with a tomato cream sauce.
A warning: Though pasta is usually just the first course of an Italian dinner, these servings are meal-size, and even half-portions leave little room for a secondo.
The entrees are about evenly split between meat and fish, but the kitchen's deft handling of veal dishes make them the showstoppers, especially the marinated veal chop, which is not on the regular menu, but is often available. Even the green beans that serve as a garnish are buttery and garlicky and melt in your mouth.
Desserts include tiramisu and a very light chocolate mousse. But if they seem too much, opt for a espresso doppio and perhaps a sambuca nightcap.
Positano, 4940-48 Fairmont Ave., Bethesda, 301-654-1717. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday, noon-10:30 p.m. Saturday, noon-9 p.m. Sunday. Appetizers at dinner $3.95 to $7.85, pastas $8.95 to $13.95, entrees $13.95 to $21.95. Reservations accepted, handicapped accessible.
Buon Giorno, 8003 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda, 301-652-1400. Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Appetizers $6.95 to $9.95, pastas $12.95 to $14.95, entrees $17.95 to $21.95. Reservations recommended, handicapped accessible.