- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 25, 2009

In this age of concept restaurants, foodie blogs, avant-garde cooking and fancy decor, the 27-year-old Trattoria Alberto on Capitol Hill is a real anomaly and a bit of a puzzle. The worn interior, with its framed Campari and Cinzano posters, hasn’t changed in decades, and neither has the menu. In fact, the idea of catering to an increasingly changing, gentrifying neighborhood - now home to several upscale restaurants - has never been on the trattoria’s table, says Sergio Rigato, who has co-owned the restaurant since 1989.

Through trend changes, recessions and crime waves, this old Italian eatery has not only survived, but thrived.

The explanation is not simple, but it has to do with offering an unpretentious but welcoming atmosphere and no-frills Italian home cooking that seem to appeal equally to congressmen (House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, for example, apparently is a regular) and local residents as well as the occasional tourists or visiting Italian natives.

Like Marco di Muzio, a native of Turin, who stopped by on a recent afternoon just to chill and speak Italian with Mr. Rigato, who is from Padua, which - like Turin - is in Northern Italy.

“I like a relaxed atmosphere, and the food is like my mom’s,” said Mr. di Muzio, who often places a special order of grilled fish and vegetables. “I try to eat healthy, and they are very flexible here.”

Another regular at the bar that afternoon was Leon Bowens, a Hill resident who has been coming to the Trat (as some of its followers call it) since 1987. Before Mr. Bowens even has time to sit at the small bar, Mr. Rigato has uncapped a bottle of Bud Light.

“I get treated like family here,” says Mr. Bowens, who comes almost daily to this 100-seat restaurant with its tiny bar seating six - well, seven at the most.

Some regulars refer to the restaurant as a “Cheers” - the television show - kind of place where everyone knows one another, waiters and owners know the particularities of the regulars’ palates, and guests can feel comfortable arriving alone.

“I often go in by myself. I sit myself at the bar, and there are always people to talk to,” says Diane Scott, a regular and current Trattoria Alberto webmaster.

So it does sound like “Cheers.”

“It’s unpretentious; I don’t have to wait for a table; I can have a conversation; and the food is good,” Ms. Scott says.

Which brings us to the food. It’s not what people mention first.

“If I had an Italian grandma, this is what she would make,” Ms. Scott says. “It’s good but not flashy.”

True.

The pasta dishes - most are homemade - are tasty, but the presentation is simple. No garnishes, no drizzled sauces. Flavorwise, they’re solid but don’t present anything unexpected or innovative - good or bad. The veal is nice and tender, and the tiramisu, made by Mr. Rigato - who arrives at the restaurant at 7 a.m. daily to prepare pastas and desserts - is to die for.

In other words, unpretentious home cooking rules. Mr. Rigato, who arrived in the United States in the 1960s, even goes so far as to serve chicken Parmigiana, which isn’t even Italian.

Talk about a no-airs attitude.

“It’s American. There is nothing like it in Italy,” says Mr. Rigato, 64, using gestures as much as words to express himself. “But we serve it because people like it,” he says, throwing his arms midway up in the air.

So, the chicken Parmigiana along with all the other dishes have stayed unchanged on the menu over the years, including the early 1990s, when Barracks Row was saturated with crime and panhandling. Mr. Rigato even remembers a time when thieves stole ducks from the upstairs freezers in those rowdy years.

“And then they came back for the tartufo,” he says of the truffle-shaped ice cream and laughs. “I guess they wanted dessert to go with the duck.”

Mr. Bowens and Mr. di Muzio join in the laughter; a perfect closing Trattoria Alberto vignette.

RESTAURANT: Trattoria Alberto, 506 Eighth St. SE; 202/544-2007; www.trattoriaalbertodc.com.

HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Sunday

PRICES: starters (approximate) $5 to $10 (lunch) and $6 to $13 (dinner); entrees $9.50 to $13 (lunch) and $11 to $20 (dinner); desserts $6 (lunch) and $7 (dinner)

PARKING: Limited street parking

ACCESS Limited wheelchair access; bathrooms inaccessible

METRO: Eastern Market

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