- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Centro is not new — it has been around for six years — but it has a fine new executive chef, Liam LaCivita, who is turning out superlative modern Italian cooking.

Nestled in the middle of a block of restaurants on Bethesda Avenue in downtown Bethesda, Centro is a classy Italian trattoria with golden-orange walls suggesting the warmth of a Tuscan afternoon, an open kitchen at the rear with shining steel ductwork assuring that no kitchen aromas (except for an occasional inviting whiff of garlic) pervade the dining room, and a long graceful bar decorated with sparkling bottles of grappa.

White tablecloths are covered with white butcher paper; service is casual but attentive. The wine list has ample, well priced choices by the glass — including prosecco — of both Italian and American wines and a good list of bottles, albeit on the expensive side. The crusty country bread is fresh and the butter sweet.

Pastas are superb. A dish of tagliatelle with wild mushrooms and sage could not have been better. The pasta was perfectly cooked, ever so slightly al dente and the light sauce, fragrant with a mix of mushrooms, both wild and cultivated, and a touch of sage was delicious.

Equally outstanding are the pansotti filled with a mixture of spinach and chopped prosciutto, taleggio cheese and walnuts in a butter sauce enhanced with lemon and just a suggestion of nutmeg. Pansotti are large ravioli-type pockets of pasta. Centro’s are feather light and splendid.

Centro is under the same ownership as the Red Tomato in Bethesda. When that restaurant held forth in downtown Washington in the space now occupied by David Greggory, one of the outstanding dishes was house-made potato gnocchi. At Centro, gnocchi also hold an important role on the pasta menu, either with a sauce of truffled butternut squash and sage or with a traditional tomato and basil sauce.

Pasta and antipasto portions tend to be large and can easily be shared. Some antipasti are so generous they would do better as main courses. For example, crostini with grilled wild bear sausage and broccoli rabe, topped with a thin slice of pecorino, consists of three pieces of good grilled bread, topped with the other ingredients. The sausage is spicy, the broccoli well cooked and slightly bitter and the whole is a fine peasant-style dish, large enough to be shared by two or even three diners.

Similarly, grilled calamari served over a salad of baby arugula in a light lemon vinaigrette could easily serve as a light main course. The calamari are tender and delicious.

Other appetizers are steamed mussels; duck confit with candied walnuts, gorgonzola dolce and a red wine poached pear; wild mushroom stuffed quail; tuna tartare; and beef carpaccio.

“Traditional” Caesar salad is a refreshing starter, combining crisp romaine covered with a thin slice of Parmesan cheese in a sauce that is considerably lighter (no anchovies) than the true Caesar dressing. Many of Centro’s dishes, by the way, come with a topping of thinly sliced cheese.

Among the seven secondi, or main courses, the grilled filet mignon is outstanding. Although our filet was ever so slightly overcooked, the beef is tender to a fork and bursting with flavor. It is served on a delicious crisp rice cake mixed with a little taleggio, and a combination of excellent caramelized root vegetables as well as a salty-sweet apple mostarda that resembles a mild chutney. It’s as good as steak as can be.

A large, flattened grilled paillard of chicken breast is also excellent. Lemon brings out the taste of the chicken in this simple preparation. Unfortunately, the mound of arugula, onions, tomatoes, olives and a delicate goat cheese heaped on top of the paillard, although a nice salad by itself, did nothing to further the dish. The kitchen’s wonderful caramelized root vegetables or fingerling potatoes or the broccoli rabe would be a better accompaniment to the chicken than the acidic salad.

Arugula is better served in a lunchtime salad topped with three or four chunks of excellent tuna, grilled rare or medium rare. The arugula is mixed with flecks of roasted peppers and dressed in the same light lemony vinaigrette as the other salads featuring arugula, which is in most of the restaurant’s salads.

Although the grilled tuna salad is not available in the evening, dinner main courses include grilled tuna with wild mushroom broth, buckwheat polenta and creamed porcini mushrooms. Other main courses include a traditional Apulian fish soup with clams, mussels, shrimp and fish, a grilled veal chop, grilled skirt steak with truffled white bean ragu, and a sauteed rockfish filet.

The lunchtime menu adds pizza and panini to a limited selection of the dinner dishes. Along with the traditional pizza Margherita, are two white pizzas and a daily pizza special. Paninis include vegetarian mix, prosciutto with arugula and grilled chicken with Gorgonzola, tomato and basil.

The only disappointments were a chocolate panna cotta dessert and the grating chucka-chucka-chucka of a mindless disco beat in the background. Chef LaCivita’s food deserves much better perhaps the passion of a Puccini aria to match the passion of the kitchen. Or even Italian pop. The panna cotta should be creamy and light; this was heavy with a gelatinous consistency.

The chef has turned Centro into a first-rate Italian restaurant, serving carefully prepared food that is delicious and looks attractive. Washingtonians would find it well worth a trip to the ‘burbs. Bravo, Signor LaCivita.

RESTAURANT: Centro, 4838 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda;. 301/951-1988

HOURS: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Saturday; dinner, 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday, 5:30 to 9 p.m. Monday and until 9:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, and 5 to 10:45 p.m. Thursday to Saturday

PRICE: Starters and salads, $5 to $12 (lunch), $7 to $12 (dinner); pasta, $9 to $11 (lunch), $15 to $24 (dinner); main courses, $8 to $14 (lunch, including pizzas and paninis) and $19 to $30 (dinner); desserts, $7

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Ample metered street parking and public lot

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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