- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 7, 2002

The circus has been playing daily for almost a year at lunch and dinner in Arlington's Courthouse Plaza at Circo Pizzeria & Grill, that is.
Circo is a jolly, straightforward Italian restaurant next door to RT Seafood Kitchen. (They're connected by a door marked "private.") Both restaurants are owned by Ralph David, but other than being neighbors united by a door, they are not connected by decor, kitchen or staff.
The circus theme prevails throughout the bright yellow-and-red restaurant. The seating area is divided into booths and tables. The booths are upholstered in a velvety fabric in a colorful harlequin pattern. Diamond-shaped tiles in red and yellow serve as a backdrop to the bar and frame the wide window to the kitchen.
Large papier-mache animals and a trapeze artist float in the air. In one corner, a fetchingly curvaceous plaster blonde surveys the diners. Delightful circus prints adorn the walls; a poster for Tatum & Bristol circus, featuring a troupe of performing pigs, is a particular delight.
Circo doesn't have fancy dishes or frou-frou presentations; it has no tablecloths or candles. What it does have are cloth napkins; both butter and olive oil for dipping good Tuscan-style bread (authentically made with no or very little salt); carafes of a light, pleasant house wine from Italy's Piemonte for $16 per liter, $9 for a half-liter; reasonable prices; and good food.
With few exceptions, the food is consistently well-prepared and tasty. Ingredients, including fish and shellfish, are fresh, and the chef has a light hand with sauces. The menu at lunch and dinner is almost identical, with sandwiches and main-course salads available at lunch and a few additional entrees at dinner. There are few price changes.
Not everything turns out exactly as described on the menu, which doesn't really matter because almost everything tastes just fine.
"Oven-roasted mussels" were steamed and served in a lovely broth of white wine, garlic, oregano and pepper. The mussels were plump and tender and fresh as could be.
Tuscan white bean soup is akin to a minestrone rather than the traditional bean soup, and the addition of sun-dried tomatoes is definitely a non-Tuscan touch. A grilled salmon fillet, served on a salad of arugula and chopped tomatoes, didn't include the capers the menu promised. The garlic mashed potatoes that accompanied the fish (as well as several other entrees) are good, light on the garlic. The potatoes are not a creamy, buttery puree, but a robust, chunky accompaniment.
Grilled polenta with Italian sausage and broccoli rabe is a substantial starter. The combination of slightly spicy slices of sausage, bitter broccoli, bland polenta and sprightly tomato-and-garlic sauce is rich and satisfying.
Sandwiches include Italian sausage and melted provolone cheese, and grilled chicken with fontina cheese or pancetta (Italian bacon). Veal Parmigiana is an excellent main course thin pounded veal, lightly breaded, with melted mozzarella in a fresh tomato sauce with an ample sprinkling of fresh basil. The cheese has a tendency to become slightly rubbery as it cools, so eat it while it's hot.
The veal is accompanied by a side dish of perfectly cooked linguini dressed with just a bit of butter and a sprinkling of parsley.
Although it's not on the menu, the kitchen cheerfully prepared veal al limone upon request after first insisting that all its veal had been breaded already. The finished dish, sauteed with just a sprinkling of lemon juice, proved to be a paillard, rather than a true scaloppine, but the flavor and preparation were very satisfactory.
The half-dozen pasta dishes on the menu range from baked penne with tomato, cream and five cheeses to linguini with shrimp, garlic, mushrooms and roasted red peppers. Rigatoni with prosciutto, mushrooms, cream and Parmesan cheese is delicious, a rich, earthy dish that, together with a salad, makes a fine meal. The pasta is neither overcooked nor oversauced.
There's a wide choice of main courses: grilled calves' liver with caramelized onions, Italian sausages with cannellini beans, Tuscan pork ribs with polenta, a breaded pork chop Milanese or a grilled T-bone steak. San Francisco would not recognize the polenta in its fish stew, cioppino a combination of shrimp, scallops, mussels and calamari in a tomato broth but never mind, as long as the dish works.
The only thing that doesn't seem to work is the pizza, a curious drawback in a pizzeria. We tried the classic pizza Margherita, a simple mix of tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil. The basil was fresh, and the tomato sauce was made with Roma tomatoes, but there was much too much cheese, and the crisp, dry crust lacked the yeasty chewiness of true pizza crust.
The 14 pizzas are topped with imaginative combinations such as roasted mussels, tomato and cheeses; barbecued chicken, onions and cheeses; red potato, onion, rosemary and fontina cheese; or goat cheese, roasted red pepper and sun-dried tomatoes.
Besides carafes of house wine, Circo offers an excellent short list of Italian and American wines, many priced reasonably between $20 and $30; many are available by the glass.
Desserts are house-made and worth trying. A lovely Italian cheesecake made with ricotta is lighter and more delicate than the New York-style made with cream cheese. Baked chocolate custard is nice and creamy; it might be even better if served warm from the oven.
Cannoli, to which Sicily lays claim but which probably came to Italy from the Arabs, are delicious. Traditionally, the flaky pastry cylinders are filled with sweetened ricotta, nuts, citron and bits of chocolate. At Circo, the rich, creamy ricotta has only a bit of chocolate incorporated into the filling, and the whole is dusted with cocoa powder.
Chef Junis Hernandez is having a fine time with her circus. If you come at lunchtime, she may greet you at the door. She's a charming hostess and a fine cook.

RESTAURANT: Circo, 2300 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington; 703/465-2100
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday; dinner begins at 4 p.m.
PRICES: Starters and sandwiches up to $7.50; pasta $8 to $13; main courses $9 to $18; desserts $5
CREDIT CARDS: All major credit cards
PARKING: Ample street parking
ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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