Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

Sitting Ovation

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When the clerk in the Rome train station corrected my wife, it was more a lesson in Italian culture than language. With equal parts relief at being off the plane and enthusiasm about the beginning of our vacation, my wife accepted our tickets by saying, "Mille grazie." A thousand thanks.

"No," the woman countered: "Grazie." Just thank you.

She was, after all, only doing her job.

I have a feeling that if Alberto and Peppino Mastromano, the brothers who own the West End's Little Venice, were to read a glowing review of their restaurant, they would respond with a shrug, a nod and "Grazie." No American hyperbole for them. They are only doing their job.

In this industry, however, it's still a rare pleasure to find an establishment doing its job this well, and with such relaxed confidence. No matter how hard corporate-owned chain and boutique restaurants try to mimic this vibe, they have yet to learn that swollen budgets and training manuals can't fake confidence.

I was not confident the first time I crossed the Eagle Ridge parking lot to visit Little Venice. Set between the Food Lion and a children's gym, the restaurant has tinted windows behind which I feared finding a gondola-themed spaghetti and meatball joint (the likes of which I can visit far closer to home).

My strip-mall restaurant prejudices died at the door.

I won't dwell on the ambience here, because to do so would be extremely un-Italian. Yes, the interior revealed itself to be a gently lighted, two-tiered oasis, but the white linens and candles and art are just accessories for the food.

The Little Venice menu offers lots of options, and that's not even counting the lengthy list of specials -- a word that, in this case, serves as an honest description, not just a title — and the 195 choices of accompanying wine. What the menu doesn't offer is a collection of cutting-edge items exploring explosive new flavor combinations. Instead, these are simply clean, classic flavors — only the rare and unmatched pleasure of high-quality ingredients skillfully prepared to enhance, not alter, their natural flavors.

What was humbly described as shrimp scampi with roasted fennel turned out to be sweet, fresh prawns sautéed and served atop shaved fennel, the caramelized anise flavor sharpening our appetites. The success of this dish, our server informed us, lies in the owners' insistence on serving only the best cold-water fin fish and shellfish. If it's not available on the market, it's not on the menu. This is why the scampi is kept on heavy rotation but only on the specials list.

Fresh seafood also amplified the success of the asparagus soup — a blend of roux, heavy cream and rich chicken stock complemented by cold-water lobster tail.

Little Venice's entrees were equally straightforward and worthy of praise. The filet of beef was just a bit under medium-rare, but was such a good cut of meat that this "error" read as evidence of the chef's desire not to ruin the meat with too much heat.

The steak's contorni, or side dishes, were green beans so fresh I'm tempted to call them haricots verts, and perfectly double-pan-fried cubes of starchy white potatoes worthy of pommes anglaises, though such labels would spoil the meal's lack of pretension.

The pasta selections occupy a slightly lower price point. Don't be fooled. This is a world of fresh pastas and herb-infused oils. Among the highlights was the lightly flavored pesto cream that cloaked the al dente tortellini — both rich and subtle.

There's no denying, however, the kitchen's delight in working with fresh fish. Again, the approach was to showcase, not shower. The red snapper came in a light puttanesca sauce (tomato concassé, capers and kalamatas), rivaling a flounder meunière, whose breading was so light it seemed to hover slightly above the pool of lemon-butter sauce mirroring the plate.

Though the dessert menu includes temptations such as the bune, a chocolate crème caramel with a chocolate tartlet crust, one bite of "the bombe" — white-chocolate-encased fruit sorbets — proved it was, well, the bomb.

I am thrilled to write that one phrase that, despite rampant rumors to the contrary, every restaurant critic longs to write. This is a good restaurant. To an American audience I'll go so far as to say it's exceptional. Wonderful. Stellar. But to the Mastromano brothers, I will simply say, Good job. And thanks. S



Little Venice

10482 Ridgefield Parkway
741-6022
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Dinner: Monday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.
Reservations suggested.




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