DINING: Capitol Hill cafe tops rivals

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Capitol Hill residents traditionally have not been spoiled with good neighborhood restaurants, but things are looking up.

Not only have offerings improved dramatically on H Street Northeast and Eighth Street Southeast, but tucked away in a corner row house not far from Union Station is also a new Italian restaurant - Toscana Cafe - that blows any competition, particularly within its own moderately priced category, out of the water (and gives its more upscale counterparts a run for their money).

Young chef and owner Daniele Catalani, a former Roberto Donna protege and originally from the medieval Tuscan town of Pistoia near Florence, has succeeded in creating a menu that is so compelling that within the first month of opening his restaurant, he needs to expand to accommodate Italophiles and foodies from near and far.

The plan is to add about 60 all-weather seats by enclosing the outdoor patio.

“I’ve had the warmest welcome I’ve ever had in my life,” says the 30-year-old chef and proud father of a 3-month old baby girl. “Some customers come back two or three times a week.”

They’re coming back for the amazing homemade pastas, sausages and cheeses to mention a few culinary attractions. Take the homemade mozzarella: It has that slightly tough membrane which, when popped, releases rich milky goodness.

“We make absolutely everything from scratch,” says Mr. Catalani who attributes only a few recipes to his home region, for example the amazing polipo - braised octopus in a hearty stew of chickpeas, olives and tomatoes.

Another not-to-be-missed best-seller is the pappardelle, a flat, wide pasta served with a roasted tomato and lamb ragu. At $16 it’s a steal. Which is true for most of the dishes on Toscana Cafe’s menu.

The most expensive dish is $25 (lobster fettuccine), but most pastas and second courses are in the teens.

“I want it to be casual, fresh, traditional and affordable,” Mr. Catalani says, adding that he’s building on his predecessor Banducci’s deli concept except he is “stepping it up a little.”

Modesty is always refreshing, but in this case, it’s misleading. This is much more than a deli.

Still, it’s true that at lunch the restaurant serves mostly as a takeout deli place for wide variety of high-quality sandwiches (all under $10), such as the Greco - marinated lamb, yogurt, cumin dressing and grilled eggplant - and other items such as pizza by the slice. Yes, finally, real pizza.

It’s also true that the service at dinner leaves a lot to be desired, at least on a recent evening when a waitress was clueless about everything from wine choices to food preparation. Another downside to the dine-in experience is the stingy wine pours.

Nevertheless, these objections pale in comparison to all the accolades coming to this modest chef from Tuscany, who often chats up customers in the dining room.

“I want people to feel like I’m entertaining at my own home,” Mr. Catalani says.

He is succeeding, for Toscana Cafe is an excellent culinary home for some of the best Italian food around.

RESTAURANT: Toscana Cafe, 601 Second St. NE, 202/525-2693, www.toscanacateringdc.com

HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

PRICES: $7 to $11 starters, $14 to $25 entrees, $7 to $8 desserts.

PARKING: Limited street parking.

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible.

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