Ricciuti's started as a pizza place in Laytonsville, then moved several miles east on Route 108 to Olney about five years ago, ultimately transforming itself into a full-service restaurant.
At its heart and soul, Ricciuti's is still a pizza place, with some of the best wood-oven pizzas around. But it's also a neighborhood jewel that can provide a decent veal chop, some good pasta, a well-chosen wine list and dynamite desserts. Not bad for a place started by a guy right out of college with no formal culinary training.
It might be that nearby residents are trying to keep Ricciuti's (pronounced ree-choo-tees) a secret, for they clearly know its virtues. On a recent weeknight visit, the place was packed. A group of about 20 adults and children celebrated one couple's baby-on-the-way in an upstairs room. Patrons walking to tables often stopped and greeted friends.
At lunch one day recently, the patio was almost filled with diners enjoying the late summer sunshine, and the downstairs rooms were busy, with at least one table of diners from the nearby Olney Theatre Center for the Arts.
Although the season has passed, locals know they can find fine frozen custard here during the warm months.
Ricciuti's is in a white clapboard house that dates to the 1800s and was called Olney by its original residents, giving the area its name. Its cozy atmosphere has been retained. One main downstairs room houses the wood-fired oven, an addition holds the bar, and the other main rooms have been converted into separate dining spaces. Some walls have been given a Tuscan feel, with rough stucco and sumptuous drapes. Art prints celebrating French bistros decorate the walls.
Overall there's an air of homey elegance about the restaurant, and it is punctuated with friendly, if not polished, service.
Chef and owner James Ricciuti changes his menu with the seasons, sometimes daily, so you can't be assured that you'll find quite the same preparations on successive visits. Still, you would be remiss not to try the pizza. The crust is thin, blistered and almost charred on the bottom, and wonderfully yeasty tasting. And the wood oven deepens the flavor of any topping. Sharing a pizza bianca -- just olive oil and four Italian cheeses -- is a good way to start any meal.
Pizza lovers might never stroll to any other part of the menu, but that would be a mistake. Fried calamari is crisp but light, without a hint of greasiness, and the silken butternut squash soup, accented with slivers of roast duck, is a grand harbinger of fall. So, too, is the salad of roasted butternut squash, apples and pecans over mixed greens.
The beef carpaccio -- thin slices of raw filet mignon topped with capers, slivers of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and just a whisper of lemon and olive oil -- is a tasty rendition of this Venetian classic.
Penne pasta one night was paired with large, briny-tasting shrimp in a tomato-laden cream sauce. The individual ingredients were well prepared, but somehow the whole thing didn't seem to work together.
In contrast, the grilled veal chop, served with polenta and grilled pears, was a star. The meat was juicy and flavorful -- a difficult feat with lean, generally bland veal -- and could have come from some little trattoria in the Dolomites. The same could be said for grilled lamb chops served at lunch, though the accompanying vegetables seemed to have stayed a little too long near the fire.
You'll need to save room for dessert. Except for the sorbets, which come from Italy, all of the desserts are made in-house. Those choices also change with the season. The warm chocolate tart, served with a light chocolate mousse, was somehow dense and airy at the same time, with an intense dark chocolate flavor. The bread pudding, with its accompanying port wine caramel sauce, was rich and yummy.
Service during both visits was a little spotty -- appetizers and main courses arrived at the same time at lunch -- but the servers' enthusiasm, abject apologies for missteps and willingness to find out about any dish with which they were unfamiliar compensated for the mistakes.
Ricciuti's 3308 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd. (Route 108), Olney, 301-570-3388. Reservations recommended. Appetizers at lunch, $3.50-$7.25; main courses at lunch, $6.75-$11; appetizers at dinner, $3.50-$9.50; main courses at dinner, $10-$23; pizzas, from $5.75 at lunch, from $7.25 at dinner. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4-9 p.m. Sunday. www.ricciutis.com.
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