- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Potenza” means power, and Potenza the restaurant, two blocks from the ultimate seat of power at the White House, is about power to the kitchen.

While the kitchen does not reflect the cooking of Potenza itself, the capital of Basilicata, the region in the arch of the Italian boot, it is basically southern Italian.

Bright new digs in the renovated Woodward Building at 15th and H streets Northwest reflect owner Dan Mesches’ affection for his grandmother, Columbina Potenza, for whom the restaurant is named.

The pastries and breads served in the trattoria - fresh and with good crust - are made in the bakery at Potenza’s entrance and are for sale each day.

Potenza is divided into several dining areas; with a bar, a raw-seafood bar and a comfortable lounge. Booths and well-spaced tables in one dining area offer a view of the open kitchen. The menu is identical for lunch and dinner. Portions are substantial, and service is generally amiable and efficient - although on one occasion, we drew a surly waiter.

But, never mind.

A fine way to start a meal is with one of the delicious, crisp, thin-crusted rectangular pizzas. The Gorgonzola dolce is delicious, topped with a fragrant tomato sauce, cheese, a few leaves of mache and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. The salame picante made with spicy sopresatta sausage, tomato sauce and a mix of mozzarella and provolone is tasty, but the sausage is very salty.

A heavy hand with salt is one of the kitchen’s few failings, especially with vegetables. The spinach accompanying excellent veal scaloppine was so salty as to be inedible; a small mound of arugula served with the Milanese-style pork was doused with an over-salted vinaigrette.

Appetizers include a tasty dish of mussels with pancetta, garlic and tomato; deliciously satisfying bruschetta topped with Gorgonzola dolce; roasted garlic and tomatoes - plus, a pleasant salad of charred octopus with a dice of tomatoes, cucumber and red onions.

An order of the three-colored salad (insalata tricolore), described on the menu as sliced pears, endive, blood oranges, fontina polenta croutons, and hazelnut vinegar came to the table as a mound of greens topped with a few thin slices of pears and a few segments of blood orange in a hazelnut vinaigrette. No endive or fontina polenta croutons.

A dozen pastas enliven the menu, ranging from broad noodles (pappardelle) with a wild boar ragu to gnocchi sauced with a mix of Gorgonzola and toasted walnuts. Perhaps the most unusual pasta is a dish of thick spaghetti topped with a mix of anchovies, tarragon pesto and bread crumbs. You have to be an anchovy afficionado because they overpower the tarragon.

Potenza’s veal scaloppine is first-class: tender, cooked perfectly and presented in a rich brown sauce. The accompanying polenta, creamy, delicate and soft, is an ideal foil.

Veal Milanese is a classic Italian dish of a thin, breaded and fried veal cutlet. Potenza prepares it with pork. The bread crumbs are mixed with herbs to give the meat a greenish hue and subtle complexity. It’s served with a charred lemon - essential for the dish - and a splash of basil sauce. The dish must be served piping hot, directly from the stove. On one occasion, it was hot and superb; on another, the meat was warm and the bread coating was slightly soggy, a banal entree at best.

The kitchen prepares a wonderfully light tiramisu and a delicious buttermilk panna cotta as well as several excellent house-made sorbets and ice creams.

Potenza the restaurant, despite its location, is not homage to power. It’s a large, comfortable trattoria where you might drop in for a drink and a pizza, a hearty lunch, a light dinner, or just coffee and pastries from its bakery on the way to or from work. Potenza has been open little more than a month, and it’s already crowded and buzzing with good times.

RESTAURANT: Potenza, 1430 H St. NW, 202/638-4444.

HOURS: Restaurant: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday and to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; Sunday brunch 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Wine shop: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. Bakery: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday

PRICES: Starters $7 to $13; pizzas and pastas $12 to $18; main courses $17 to $26; desserts $7

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street parking; dinner valet parking $7

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: McPherson Square



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