- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 16, 2002

The menu at Finemondo ("world's end"), Savino Recine's new restaurant on F Street downtown, reads like a wondrous medley of Italian country dishes not usually found in local Italian restaurants, including a full page of spit-grilled fish and meats. There are many delicacies to choose from among the starters, the main courses and the chef's specialties.

Alas, it seems that when you get to the end of the world, lots of things are missing. Gli arrosti ("the grill") menu, designed for a minimum of two diners, offers beef tenderloin, suckling pig, pork loin, veal shank, prime rib, red snapper, John Dory and sea bass, as well as "additional stuffed roasted meats available upon request."

All of these dishes are promised "roasted to your liking, presented table side and served country-style with traditional sauces and side dishes." (The menu also states that all of the roasted meat and fish are served with roasted potatoes, leaving some doubt about the variety of available "traditional side dishes.")

Suckling pig or roast pork loin sounded great on a recent cool Saturday night. "Oh, no," explained our waiter, only some of the roasted dishes were available some of the time, although he couldn't say which ones would be available when. That evening, only beef, sea bass and red snapper were available, and there weren't any of the "additional stuffed roasted meats" to be had.

So much for the noble pig, leaving us with a choice of three seafood main courses (rockfish, tuna or calamari) or three meat entrees (guinea hen, leg of lamb or braised beef) from the regular menu. There is also a "Chef Menu" with additional antipasti, pastas and main courses, which include duck breast, veal osso buco, baked sea bream and Tuscan fish soup.

There are 10 pasta dishes, a couple of soups and nine starters. The starters all sound interesting and ambitious.

Pan-fried prawns and sea asparagus with garlic and capers sounded just right. (Sea asparagus is regular green asparagus that has been treated with salt water, our waiter informed us.) Unfortunately, there were no shrimp in the house that evening, so the asparagus was served with calamari, another disappointment.

Sliced chicken in balsamic vinegar with crispy vegetables turned out to be shredded chicken on a bed of curly endive with a few steamed carrot and zucchini spears. The chicken salad was nice but nothing special, and there were no crispy vegetables around.

Carpacccio of swordfish was a success, both visually and for the taste buds. The plate was pretty, with the pink, fresh fish dotted with sections of pink grapefruit and topped with curled paper-thin ribbons of celery. A sprinkling of fresh-ground pepper added a necessary bit of spice; it was a well imagined and executed dish.

Artichoke stew, described on the menu as "Roman style with anchovies and parsley," was not a stew at all. Four baby artichokes, barely cooked and impossible to eat, sat in a bitter broth. No anchovies, no parsley, just a mound of dill.

Similarly disappointing was a salad of supposedly grilled calamari with arugula and white beans. The calamari lacked the smoky flavor grilling imparts; the arugula was so wilted it appeared braised; and the beans were tough and flavorless. Prepared properly, the dish could have been a contender.

Roasted guinea hen is a pleasant, if unexciting, main course. The fowl was perfumed with a delicate rosemary sauce and accompanied by caramelized cauliflower. The vegetable, although not really caramelized, had been browned yet remained slightly crisp; it was excellent.

We tried a typical Genovese pasta dish trofie with basil pesto and green beans, sprinkled with pine nuts. Trofie are squiggly little bits of pasta, a Ligurian specialty. Unfortunately, the pesto sauce was lackluster without the zing of garlic and Parmesan cheese. Even the chopped green beans were watery. It's too bad because this could be a truly fine dish.

Nor was the goat cheese and beet ravioli much better. Although the ravioli were tender and fresh, the beets overpowered any suggestion of goat cheese, and the "sweet garlic sauce" was a thickish, bland coating on the ravioli with nary a whiff of garlic.

The best dish tried at Finemondo was pan-fried mackerel on a bright green spinach sauce (unfortunately without any pronounced spinach flavor) accompanied by sauteed red onions which tasted somewhat like red cabbage but more subtle.

Desserts include a delicious, delicate grappa mousse. It's a creamy mousse encased in a thin coating of chocolate with a frozen dollop of grappa on top and accompanied by spicy apple puree.

A special business lunch is offered for $16.50 for two courses and $23 for three. The first course is a choice of two salads; second course offers two pastas; and the third course is fish or meat. The mackerel was a lunchtime "secondi" on the business menu; the alternative was roast loin of pork.

The mostly Italian wine list is well priced and includes several good whites and reds for $6 and $7 per glass. The Chianti Ruffino is smooth and pleasant, a good accompaniment to the kitchen's robust style of cooking.

Finemondo, which occupies the space, basically unchanged, previously held by Catalan West, is an attractive restaurant that opened about two months ago. That's long enough for an experienced restaurateur like Mr. Recine (Primi Piatti is his popular Italian restaurant near George Washington University) to get his act together or to at least have a daily menu so that patrons won't be disappointed by everything that is not available.

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