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Caffé di Pagliacci is good, but not operatic.

A Dinner in Two Acts and a Prologue

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At the end of Ruggiero Leoncavallo's opera "I Pagliacci" ("The Clowns"), a darkly thrilling tour through love, betrayal and revenge, Canio, the lead dramatis persona who plays the role of Pagliaccio (the G is silent) in the opera's play-within-a-play, turns to the audience and, with blood still dripping from the knife with which he has just stabbed to death his wife and her lover, declares flatly: "The comedy is ended." At in the Fan, a large performance poster of a Met production of the opera greets you in the entryway. Sketches and prints of clowns line the walls in the first floor dining room, and a synopsis of the opera is printed on the back of the menu. It's a big buildup, the equivalent of an orchestral overture. But the theme seems a little too ambitious. Though each course has its high points, the dramatis personae — in this case the preparations — seem not quite up to such lofty standards save for a lone diva who offers up her goods in Act I. The Scene
We arrived on a Friday without reservations and were seated immediately in a booth in the first-floor dining room. Though the space inside is a little awkward and the entryway strangely exposed to diners, the servers have worn a groove, so once you're seated, things move smoothly. The downstairs dining room is bathed in a bright but warm, honeyed glow. If you're looking for something more romantic, ask for a table upstairs. [image-1](Stacy Warner / richmond.com) Prologue — Antipasti
The menu is in Italian with English subtitles. The Prologue, wherein appetizers are ordered, sets the stage well. The high point came with the performance of the Salsiccia alla Portabello ($5.50), a preparation of the ubiquitous portabello mushroom chopped up with sausage and rolled into a delicately thin pasta tube called a crespella. Very savory, and as it turns out, a bit of foreshadowing. Supporting characters include Frittura di Calamari alla Marco ($5.50), soft, lightly fried squid with a terrific marinara sauce; and Zuppa del Giorno ($3.50), which was potato for our performance. Act I — Pesce, Carne e Pasta
Following the action of "I Pagliacci" this act of entrées should have offered additional rising action but turned out to hold the climax. While the baked Snapper Rosso Farcito con Gambretti ($16.95) was muted by a too thick blanket of shrimp stuffing and a squall of paprika, and the Saltimbocca ($14.95) was overplayed by excessive mustard. The Canelloni stuffed with ricotta cheese, spinach, sauce and pounded chicken and veal ($8.95) stole the show, relatively speaking. The performance from the pasta side that came with my fish was also quite good. And so it seems that homemade pasta, with its remarkably light texture, is the real diva here. In addition to the six named pasta dishes, which include die-hards Fettuccini Alfredo and Lasagne, fresh pasta in a variety of shapes and sizes can be costumed by any one of eight sauces listed under Pasta Fresca. The pastas range in price from $7.95 for a plain tomato sauce to $9.95 for the same sauce served with meatballs or sausage. Other sauces include chunky fresh vegetable, sun-dried tomato with mushrooms and cream, and creamy white clam. Act II — Dolci
Hoping for a "wow" finish, we concluded with cheesecake ($3.95), Cannoli ($3.50), and Tiramisu ($3.95). But the desserts, all fine, did not deliver the dramatic, irony-filled tension of a knife-wielding clown. And so, as the curtain dropped and the bill was paid, we offered polite though brief applause for a respectable performance. We're glad we saw the show, and while there were no shouts of Bravo! from our seats we'll look for a return performance from the pasta diva soon. The dinner is ended.

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