- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 13, 2001

How curious that a restaurant calling itself "spices" should produce such underspiced dishes. Spezie, the elegant new Italian restaurant located in the space on L Street NW once occupied by 21 Federal, is a serious restaurant, featuring some interesting dishes, but everything we tasted carefully prepared and often quite delicious needed a little jazz.
Spezie is the upscale downtown sister restaurant of the popular and moderately priced Il Pizzico in Rockville. Spezie's menu is varied, with a number of unusual dishes. Starters are the stars. Large shrimp are combined with grilled Belgian endive and segments of pink grapefruit, sauced with a light vinaigrette with chopped green onions. But even with a sprinkling of fresh ground pepper, it remains on the bland side. That's too bad, because it is a delicious, if imperfect, combination.
A plate of steamed mussels and clams in white wine with garlic and tomato had more animation. Both the mussels and the tiny clams were perfect, tender, fresh and flavorful. The fragrant sauce is delicious in its own right.
Deep-fried calamari and shrimp with a spicy dipping sauce makes another winner. The seafood is well-battered and crisp, not quite hot enough, but is a fine version of a popular starter.
Caesar salad at Specie is not made with Romaine lettuce but with watercress, and the tough stalks of the cress were eliminated in the kitchen. It makes a refreshing variation on the standard version.
Athough at these prices portions are a bit small. The kitchen prepares such regulars as house-made pasta with veal Bolognese sauce, spaghetti with seafood, and twill-shaped pasta with eggplant and mozarella in a tomato sauce.
Then there are the uncommon preparations such as thick, hollow spaghetti, cooked al dente, with mild sausage and chopped leeks in a lovely creamy sauce; triangular ravioli filled with Swiss chard and Taleggio and Parmesan cheeses; fettuccini with shrimps, Italian bacon and peas in a brandy butter sauce; and ravioli with porcini mushrooms and ricotta in a pistachio cream sauce.
The two risotti are available only in the evening. Risotto alla boscaiola is a mixture of mushrooms, peas and prosciutto. Risotto speziato is a combination of figs, speck (bacon), pine nuts and rosemary. Despite the name, it is not a spicy risotto; the rosemary seems to have been but a passing fancy, and although the rice itself is wonderfully crunchy and creamy, the figs lend an overpowering and unwelcome sweetness to the dish.
Cloying sweetness is present in the chicken breast in what is described as an orange, honey and raspberry sauce, but tastes like a sweet tomato sauce. The chicken was tough to boot. Not a successful dish. Better to stick to the chicken in lemon and caper sauce.
Veal cutlets in a creamy prosciutto sauce (scaloppine al prosciutto) proved a much better choice with excellent tender veal in a mild sauce. Veal cutlets are also served stuffed with asparagus and cheese in a white wine sauce. Roast veal comes with a rosemary garlic sauce over grilled polenta.
Rack of lamb, New York strip steak with a Gorgonzola and bell pepper sauce and filet mignon in a cognac and mustard sauce round out the meat main courses. A grilled veal paillard a veal cutled pounded thin is available at lunch accompanied by a salad of arugula and radicchio.
The half-dozen fish entrees include grilled shrimp, baked salmon, breaded and baked swordfish, filet of sole stuffed with shrimp and a fish stew. For lunch, shrimp and scallops are grilled with garlic and olive oil.
Desserts are rich and beautifully presented. A lemony almond cake is light and pleasant; chocolate hazlenut torte is smooth and creamy.
The wine list is exclusively Italian and includes a number of good, moderately priced reds and whites. But shouldn't there be just a few American wines on a wine list in the nation's capital?
The dicor of Spezie is simple and uncluttered. Be sure to inspect the lovely plexiglass-encased spices adorning the walls. Each spice is arranged in a different pattern as a very decorative painting.
Service is professional and pleasant. If Spezie would stand up to its name, it could become a hit in the downtown restaurant scene.

RESTAURANT: Specie, 1736 L St. NW; 202/467-0777
HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday
PRICES: Starters and salads $5 to $9 (lunch), $5.50 to $7 (dinner); pasta $8 to $12 (lunch), $12 to $18 (dinner); entrees $14 to $18 (lunch), $16 to $20 (dinner); desserts $7.50
CREDIT CARDS: All major cards
PARKING: $5 dinner valet parking; some metered street parking
ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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