- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The ambience is Latin, but the food definitely is Italian at Dino, the new Cleveland Park restaurant just across Connecticut Avenue NW from the Uptown Theatre. Dino is a genuine neighborhood retreat.

The menu is simple and straightforward, interesting and innovative. It’s the right place for a light dinner or a snack and a glass of wine. But beware: Open barely a month, Dino has become a neighborhood favorite, and even on a rainy, dreary Wednesday night, the wait for a table at 8:30 p.m. was more than an hour. The restaurant doesn’t take reservations except for parties of six and more. That’s instant acclaim.

The popularity is well-deserved. Owner Dean Gold, who comes to the restaurant scene from Whole Foods, is a constant presence, chatting enthusiastically with his guests. He concedes that the staff is a bit overwhelmed by the quick success, but they’re coping well.

Even if the weekly specials of zucchini blossoms stuffed with ricotta cheese or the calamari filled with sausage are no longer available by week’s end, there is no scarcity of items from which to choose.

Johnny Neilsen, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, presides over the kitchen. He has worked at Andale and Palena in Washington and at the Tribeca Grill in New York City. His menu reflects the passion Mr. Gold and his wife, Kay Zimmerman, share for Venice and the Venetian wine bars where snacks (cicheti) are served, much like the custom at Spanish tapas bars.

These cicheti include a nice, cold marinated sardine; little meatballs in a tomato sauce; a frittata with vegetables and cheese; and baby octopus braised in red wine, then grilled.

Crostini can be ordered separately for $1.45 or in a group of five for $8. These are miniature open-faced sandwiches on toasted French bread, consumed in, literally, two bites. We tried the creamy cod whipped with oil and the blue cheese mixed with anchovies. Both were pleasant enough if not memorable.

Dino’s menu emphasizes small snacks and first courses rather than entrees. It has just four main courses, plus a special. The entrees are half of a delicious, juicy roasted chicken served with glazed onions; first-rate New York steak, cooked to order, sliced and served with an excellent tangy herb salsa reminiscent of Argentine chimichurri sauce and some arugula topped with slices of peccorino cheese; a whole roasted sea bass; and rotisserie-cooked lamb served with heirloom tomatoes.

Most pastas can be ordered in full or half portions. A half order of bigoi in salsa, a Venetian specialty, is a generous serving of whole-wheat pasta in a pungent sauce of anchovies, onions, capers, garlic and olive oil. It’s an unusual, robust combination, and a treat for anchovy lovers.

Another excellent, less spicy pasta dish is lasagna topped with a wonderful ragu of ground veal and pork. Another out-of-the-ordinary pasta preparation is thick pasta with a Tuscan sauce of wild boar, onions and herbs.

Clams and mussels in a broth of white wine, garlic and bits of tomato are served over a slice of country bread rather than spaghetti. My half-order consisted of a solitary clam and just half a dozen mussels — not very generous for $10. Despite the numerous slices of garlic floating in the broth, the dish curiously lacked the flavor and aroma of garlic.

It’s the superlative first courses that shine. A whole quail is grilled, cut into four pieces and served on a bed of greens. The delicious cold cooked greens are dressed with a pomegranate-and-balsamic glaze; the quail is tender and succulent.

Flash-fried calamari are nicely crisp on the outside, warm and sweet on the inside. They are served with a thick, spicy tomato sauce and make a terrific starter that can be shared easily.

Another good appetizer is a mix of grilled, slightly caramelized vegetables, such as radicchio, zucchini and squash. The combination would make a good accompaniment to a main course.

The special of ricotta-filled squash blossoms (which we managed to taste before the kitchen ran dry) was delicious. The hot, creamy melted cheese, combined with the crunchy exterior, was lovely, although a little less batter, enabling the flavor of the delicate blossom to come through, might be even better.

Equally good is the summery special of insalata caprese, the traditional mix of tomatoes and mozzarella. The heirloom tomatoes are ripe and juicy, the cheese is good, and the light dressing of crushed basil, oil and balsamic vinegar makes it a perfect salad. Another mozzarella-and-tomato combination is broiled smoked mozzarella topped with tomatoes, garlic and basil.

Other appetizers to be shared by the table are platters of assorted cured meats, with or without cheeses, platters of artisan cheeses (listed on the weekly specials menus) and platters of terrific sweet, aged prosciutto. If you fancy olive oil, you can order a flight of estate oils.

Desserts include an adequate chocolate panna cotta. The menu describes it as served with fresh fruit, which consisted of just three blueberries. Tiramisu is made with limoncello instead of espresso, an interesting twist on a traditional dessert.

A word about the wine list. Dino offers an extensive list of wines by the glass or the bottle, primarily from Italy, but with the rest of the world represented. The wines come primarily from little-known vineyards, and many are delicious.

Wines by the glass can be ordered in 3- or 8-ounce sizes, which makes it possible to order several different wines with a meal. Mr. Gold’s pricing policy is to charge retail plus $10 per bottle, making it possible to enjoy good wines at reasonable prices.

Dino is a friendly place with moderately priced good food and drink. Go early or late to avoid the crowds, or sup at one of the half-dozen chairs at the restaurant’s cozy little bar. The knowledgeable bartender will help you decide what to drink and maybe give you a taste of something to test whether you like it.

RESTAURANT: Dino, 3435 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202/686-2966.

HOURS: 5 to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday

PRICES: Appetizers and cicheti, $4.75 to $18; pastas and soups, $4 to $14; main courses, $12 to $18; desserts, $7

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street parking; public lot across the street

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Cleveland Park (Red Line)

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