In 1986, Andrea Pace was 20 and fresh out of culinary school when he went to apprentice at Villa Mozart, the acclaimed restaurant in Merano, Italy, headed by the masterful Andreas Hellrigl. The art deco destination immediately impressed the novice cook.

“One day,” Pace recalls thinking as he checked out the luxe hotel property, “ I want to open a Villa Mozart.”

It took him two decades to reach that goal, but he’s finally there -- or more specifically in Fairfax City, where this fall he opened the doors of the first restaurant where he could call the shots as sole owner. Villa Mozart’s address will be familiar to anyone who frequented Le Tire Bouchon, which the new Italian restaurant replaces. Pace’s cooking might register with local diners, too, given that he launched his Washington career in 2001 at Cafe Milano in Georgetown and went on to work in the kitchens of Il Cigno in Reston and Fiore di Luna in Great Falls.

With fewer than 50 seats, Villa Mozart is a small restaurant. But anyone looking for a dash of romance will be drawn to the intimate main dining room, whose tabletops sparkle with stemware and whose gray walls are a backdrop for handsome sepia-toned photographs of ironwork: gates, stairwells and other objects. To the right of the foyer is a private party room, complete with a plasma TV screen, that can seat up to 14 diners.

Two months into his latest gig, Pace is dishing out quiet pleasures: hot chestnut soup garnished with crisp julienned celery, grilled rack of lamb treated to braised fennel, linguine scattered with shrimp and splashed with basil-brightened, lobster-enriched tomato sauce. Winter is heralded, and Pace’s northern Italian roots are acknowledged, with an entree of venison bedded on white polenta. The dish is rounded out with Brussels sprouts, baby carrots and a filmy huckleberry sauce.

Bargain hunters might opt to try Villa Mozart for lunch. That’s when Pace serves a three-course meal for $18. With luck, the menu might conclude with a chocolate mousse bearing an Italian accent: “Olive oil,” the chef says.