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L’Ardente, an Italian stunner, combines fun and finesse

The cavernous main dining room at L'Ardente. (Scott Suchman/for The Washington Post)
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Unrated during the pandemic

“Don’t you ever just want to stay home and eat?”

It’s my mom on the phone, doing what she does best — looking after people — and asking me to tell her about what I had for dinner. I’m pulling away from L’Ardente, the highly anticipated Italian restaurant situated between downtown and Capitol Hill. As is typical of our evening chats, she wants a recap.

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“I just ate a lasagna with 40 layers,” I tell her.

“Forty layers! Oh my gosh.”

“They light the tiramisu at the table.”

“They do?” Dorothy Sietsema is a little competitive and plenty adventurous. Tonight, she knows what she cooked for herself at home can’t compete with the spectacle at L’Ardente.

“Do I know the chef?” Mom asks. She’s met José and Patrick and Eric (Ripert, in a touching encounter at Le Bernardin in New York) and likes to regale her friends with stories of close encounters of the chef kind.

“David Deshaies. He worked for Michel Richard for years, at Citronelle,” I tell her, and she acknowledges the much-missed dining destination in Georgetown. Deshaies is also behind Unconventional Diner and Michel Richard Central, restaurants known for making special occasions out of common dishes.

Food critic: Mom won’t be around forever. While I’ve still got her, we’re going to cook.

Let me put Mom on hold to encourage you to put L’Ardente on your restaurant rotation — gift and wish lists, too. Washington enjoys plenty of casual Italian restaurants and expense-account Italian venues, which makes L’Ardente particularly welcome. The newcomer, part of the billion-dollar Capitol Crossing development, combines the best of both worlds, on and off the plate.

Deshaies’s mantra: “Keep it simple but elegant.” Done. Wooden farm beams and Murano glass chandeliers share the sky-high ceiling, and pastas as elementary as bucatini alla carbonara are offered alongside the lasagna that’s already garnered more ink than some restaurants ever get. One of the first things arrivals see when they enter the main dining room is a wood-fired grill in the rear, whose leaping flames help explain the Italian name of the restaurant: “burning,” as in passionate. There doesn’t seem to be a bad table in the house, whose sleek but comfortable seats include six stools facing a grand domed pizza oven.

“We’ve been in our pajamas at home for two years,” says Deshaies. Now it’s time to “go out and feel great.” L’Ardente, which he opened with business partner Eric Eden, proves a tonic for the times. This is a restaurant that takes its cooking and hospitality, but not itself, seriously. Every dish seems to include something that makes you laugh, lap it up or both. And unlike in too many places now, the service is neither intrusive nor absent. Managers and others check in, but don’t overstay their time at the table.

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You’ll want to begin with a cocktail and a snack. Contemplate the Paloma Limone — mezcal and mint capped with lemony egg white — and tempura cauliflower offered with a dunk that’s bright with fresh herbs, lemon and garlic. Arancini are fabulous, their rice centers a perfect blend of saffron-scented rice and stretchy mozzarella, their underliner a slick of Calabrian chile oil. “Duck hunt” is poised to become the most talked-about aperitivo, however. A heady froth of duck jus, cream and foie gras suspend a green raviolo stuffed with shredded duck breast, foie gras and truffle — the single most indulgent bite in town right now. As I did, you might laugh when a waiter brings out the dish, a quartet of one-bite snacks, each in a little cup fitted with … toy duck legs.

As at Annabelle in Dupont Circle, cabbage is nudged center stage at L’Ardente. Cooked over charcoal and wood, the crisp-soft vegetable is nicely smoky and mysteriously delicious, thanks to pickled coriander seeds amid the folds. A lemon butter sauce and trout roe add sass and shimmer.

The playful side of the kitchen, helmed by chef de cuisine Leena Ali, Deshaies’s longtime culinary associate, is repeated in two terrific appetizers. A risotto comes with quote marks around it, along with a few words from your server: “It’s not traditional.” Indeed, what looks like grains of rice is in fact minced calamari. Not only does the seafood capture the mouthfeel of rice, it’s imbued with lobster stock mixed with seaweed, for creaminess. The other hat trick is two acts: a plate of sliced sashimi-grade marinated tuna atop a compartment of sliced pink veal piped with tuna sauce. Chowhounds will appreciate the twist on the classic Piedmontese vitello tonnato, broadened to embrace “tonno vitellato.”

The pastas all have something to seduce you. Part of what makes the carbonara stand out from the crowd is its rich yellow confit egg yolk. Garlicky breadcrumbs and breezy mint lend their charms to campanelle strewn with springy rock shrimp, and I love how the pasta catches bits of anchovy and capers in its ruffles. The lasagna, served on its side, finds some recipients counting for accuracy. Sure enough, 20 sheets of pasta alternating with 20 layers of beef sauce, bolstered with bordelaise, and truffled cheese add up to 40 rows. The dish’s texture — crisp edges, yielding center — is as appealing as the decadent filling.

The pizza that calls to me most, verdure, looks like Christmas. Crimson pomegranate seeds, shaved Brussels sprouts and crumbled gorgonzola cheese are beautiful and delicious atop a veneer of creamed onions and a sourdough crust that’s soft enough to fold. The pies are served in gold-colored pans atop raised stands; remove a slice, and the light of the votive on your table reflects off the shiny tray.

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Several dishes that would be stars in other restaurants — Caesar salad with a snowfall of cheese, succulent whole barbecued chicken, bruleed rice pudding enriched with mascarpone — face formidable competition here. While I’d be happy to eat them again, other dishes call louder.

Take the tiramisu. Deshaies tasked pastry chef Manabu Inoue with creating a version unlike any other, and Inoue came through with a globe of Valrhona chocolate for encasing the expected espresso-soaked lady fingers and mascarpone. A server pours rum over the sphere and ignites it, causing the orb to melt and revealing the main attraction, plus some pucker from passion fruit. All stunts should taste so sweet.

Every aspect of your visit supports the owners’ good intentions; even the restrooms show flair, with full-length mirrors and coat hooks. I dare you not to smile at the sight of the check, presented atop some Italian candies in a small golden crown. On my last stop, a companion and I watched a man park his Aston Martin in front of the restaurant and stroll in with a date. As I left, I noticed the couple in the bar, sharing pizza. Fancy and casual bond at L’Ardente.

“Don’t you ever just want to stay home and eat?”

If I were on the phone with my Mom now, I know exactly what I’d tell her: “Not when L’Ardente is cooking!”

L’Ardente, 200 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-448-0450. Open: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Prices: Appetizers $7 to $28, pasta $19 to $36, main courses to share $48 to $125. Sound check: 75 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: A small lift at the host stand allows wheelchair users to access the dining room. Restrooms are ADA-compliant.

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