- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Some of Washington’s most celebrated chefs were caught out recently by a Washingtonian survey of who’s likely to be in the kitchen and who’s not: nearly all usually are not, leaving the kitchen to lesser mortals. (Cookbook promotion tours, celebrity chefs, food and wine festivals.)

But not Roberto Donna in his new Arlington restaurant, Bebo Trattoria. And it shows. Mr. Donna is there every day at lunch and dinner, often at the bar having a quiet lunch at the end of the midday rush. He has not deserted his Galileo in Washington, but Bebo has his attention now while Galileo’s home is undergoing major renovation.

Bebo Trattoria has taken over the location of Oyamel in the Crystal City area — and, in turn, chef Jose Andres is moving into downtown Washington. The space hasn’t been altered much. It’s still a large, cavernous restaurant, but the walls are newly painted and the butterflies are gone.

There are lots of tables, some booths and a comfortable three-sided bar with a glass-enclosed kitchen behind. The wood-burning oven stands at the ready near the entrance to the restaurant, awaiting a license for the oven’s exhaust system. Once that license arrives, the oven will be sizzling with what will surely be terrific pizzas.

In other words, Bebo (Mr. Donna’s childhood nickname) is an informal restaurant serving very good food. Almost everything is fresh and tasty, in particular the daily specials. The cooking is straightforward with occasional flights of fancy in the daily specials.

Dishes are reasonably priced; portions are small and attractively presented; the ingredients are fresh, and there are a number of well-priced wines by the glass, as well as bottles of mostly Italian wines.

The menu is divided into antipasti, pastas, salads, soups, meat dishes, grilled dishes and sides. Sides are often a good idea as entrees arrive ungarnished.

A first-course special of grilled baby octopus served on a thin slice of grilled eggplant and a roasted tomato sauced with a spoonful of bright green salmoriglio — a combination of lemon juice, olive oil and ground herbs such as oregano and parsley — is a terrific combination, each element of the dish perfectly attuned to the others.

Another excellent appetizer consists of three thin slices of tuna belly, barely seared, and served with an oversalted arugula salad and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.

A heavy hand with the salt was similarly a problem with what would otherwise have been a fine version of fried calamari. The calamari were as tender as could be and their spicy coating would have added just the right crunch had it not been for the excessive salt.

Fried zucchini, on the other hand, make a delightful dish to munch with drinks, to nibble along with a grilled meat dish or just as a starter. The vegetable is cut into sticks, battered and deep-fried to a real crisp, hot, delicious amuse bouche — and that’s just what it does, entertain your taste buds.

Caesar salad is far removed from the usual. A large explosion of romaine, encased in a pretty Parmesan ring, is topped with what is termed a “classic Caesar dressing,” which, although good and creamy, has none of the benchmarks of a classic Caesar dressing.

Pasta dishes shine. They can be shared, but half portions are not available. Daily specials include preparations such as house-made pappardelle with a duck ragu, agnolotti stuffed with spinach and ricotta, or mezzalune stuffed with apple and sausage. The handmade agnolotti and the little “half moons” unfortunately had run out as a recent lunch hour expired.

We chose paccheri, large and flat tube-like pasta, with a rich tomato and pork sauce. The sauce, almost a ragu, was made by cooking the tomatoes slowly and incorporating the shredded meat of pork ribs. It’s a winner.

The pork ribs reappear as a main course in tomato sauce with white cannellini beans. Fried rabbit with artichokes; veal scallopine; meatballs; and veal tripe simmered with vegetables and tomato are other meat courses.

Simmered in a tomato sauce, the meatballs are served with garlic bread, and they are excellent. So is the tender veal, topped with creamy melted mozzarella and an anchovy filet. The scallopine similarly are served in the tomato sauce.

The grilled items include a lamb steak, a balsamic vinegar marinated pork chop, chicken with hot crushed pepper, and a rib eye steak. The skewer of marinated quail and house-made sausage could have been a fine combination except that my portion was not cooked through. Neither quail nor sausage is good when served rare.

The contorni or side dishes, priced at a reasonable $3, add starches and vegetables to the unadorned meats. Soft polenta with a little melted Parmesan cheese is excellent, just the right consistency and a fine accompaniment to most entrees. Grilled vegetables resembled the mini-tower of grilled octopus, eggplant and tomato, except that it included onions instead of octopus. Other contorni are sauteed or fried potatoes, broccoli rabe and cannellini beans.

The lunch menu is similar to dinner, with prices slightly less in some cases. An innovative lunch for those short on time is a piatto unico, a $15 four-course express lunch on a single plate, consisting of a tomato and mozzarella salad, cannellini alla Napoletana, meatballs in tomato sauce and chocolate amaretto pudding.

A children’s menu, available at both meals, includes such favorites as pastas with cream, tomato or cheese sauce, a mini pizza, chicken fingers and small meatballs. Children’s dishes are priced at $5 to $7.

Desserts also are first rate. Try the vanilla pudding with vanilla ice cream and a dice of fresh strawberries. The classic cannoli is not found frequently on restaurant menus and Bebo’s is fine with half chocolate and half vanilla ricotta filling.

Bravo, Roberto.

RESTAURANT: Bebo Trattoria, 2250-B Crystal Drive, Arlington, 703/412-5076

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

PRICES: First courses $5 to $9; pastas $10 to $13.50; main courses $12 to $18; desserts $6

CREDIT CARDS: Major cards

PARKING: Some metered street parking; validated lunchtime parking at garage next door; free parking daily in garage after 4 p.m. and all day Saturday

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Crystal City (Blue and Yellow lines)

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