- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 24, 2002

It's called a cafe lounge, but it's a full-scale Italian restaurant. Recine Savino, who owns Primi Piatti on I Street NW and Finemondo downtown on G Street, appears to have hit his stride with Savino's, his new restaurant on Dupont Circle.

Savino's is a large, cheerful place with dining areas separated by billowing white curtains or stairs leading to other levels. There's a large bar at the entrance; the dining area is around a corner and insulated from the bar smoke, if not the grating New Age/rock music. The walls are decorated with off-beat fashion photographs and that large, familiar poster of a glamorous Anita Ekberg (with Marcello Mastroianni hovering in the background), a still from "La Dolce Vita."

Floor to high ceiling windows offer a view of New Hampshire Avenue and a dozen outdoor tables waiting for a sunny day.

Savino's offers solid, trattoria (or, if you will, bistro) style cooking. Nothing fancy or nouvelle Italia. There are 10 appetizers on the menu, divided into hot and cold, the former including Italian specialties such as roasted peppers with garlic and anchovies and grilled oysters, and American favorites such as crabcake, sea scallops served over corn and grape-tomato salad or small nuggets of swordfish served with eggplant sauce.

Cold appetizers include the ubiquitous salmon tartar and tuna carpaccio as well as steamed mussels and a calamari and cannellini bean salad. The same dishes are served at lunchtime for about $1 per dish less.

Among the dozen pasta dishes which can be ordered in half portions as an appetizer are ravioli stuffed with asparagus and potato and served with an asparagus and mascapone sauce. It's an outstanding, not-to-be-missed dish. The ravioli is tender yet slightly al dente and the filling is delicate and creamy, with just a hint of mint. The sauce is rich but not overpowering. With a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese and a twist or two of fresh pepper, it's wonderfully satisfying whether you share it as an appetizer or eat the whole thing.

Ziti with Tuscan-style cauliflower makes an unusual earthy dish. The cauliflower is chopped and mixed with olive oil and a little garlic and parsley. It's a good winter dish, despite being over-salted a flaw in most of the dishes. (This is true of many Washington restaurants. Do chefs here hold stock in a salt mine?)

Pea and zucchini soup makes a fine winter starter. Finely chopped zucchini, onions and whole baby English peas in a broth is flavored lightly with basil pesto, which gives strength and flavor to the soup. A slight acidic tang adds interest. But the soup, too, was heavy on salt.

Main courses do not disappoint. The menu includes about half a dozen each of meat and fish dishes. Meats are honest and straightforward offerings with several beef dishes, such as braised short ribs and barbecued skirt steak served with grilled endive. Marinated rib-eye steak, served with mushrooms and roast potatoes, is well prepared and satisfying.

A half of a chicken roasted with a slight touch of garlic and rosemary was not as good as it should be. The skin was not crisp and the meat was on the dry side. The roast potatoes, served also with the braised short ribs and the roast chicken, were greasy and lukewarm, not hot and crisp.

The braised short ribs come bathed in a rich tomato sauce. They are flavorful and well prepared. Curiously, our waiter asked how we would like them prepared, indicating that the chef usually serves them medium rare. Braised short ribs are always well done; it's the nature of the dish and indeed, that's just how they came to the table.

Grilled pork tenderloin was delicious, the meat unusually tender and slightly pink, served with a rich Cinzano reduction. The accompanying French string beans are bright green, cooked so they are neither mushy nor so crisp as to be inedible. It's one of the best pork dishes in town. Savino's fish dishes include grilled salmon, roasted rockfish, tuna fillet and halibut, all served with different accompaniments. The rockfish comes with a cucumber gazpacho; the halibut with an endive marmalade, and the salmon with fava beans.

A specialty at Savino's is pizza not the usual round Neapolitan pie, but an oval, almost rectangular version approximately nine by 18 inches. It has a very thin, crunchy and delicious crust. As the menu explains, Savino's uses a blend of five kinds of flour imported from Italy: "This blend is a new method that [reduces] the amount of gluten to almost nothing, so the result is a very light pizza."

To make this odd-shaped pizza, Mr. Savino imported a new machine from Italy, as well as the flour. The result is a thin, crisp yet chewy pizza, well worth trying. Toppings range from the classically simple tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil (pizza margherita) to tomato sauce, mushrooms, mozzarella, artichokes and olives. Shrimp and arugula are added to another pizza, and a white pizza is topped with caramelized onions, goat cheese and black olives. A pizza and a salad make a perfect light meal.

The wine list is small and expensive, starting at $30 for red wine. We were told that the reds by the glass ($6.50 to $7.50) came from Tuscany, but in fact they're from the Mapo Valley in Chile. Adequate, but nothing special.

Desserts include a good hazelnut cake and a passion fruit creme brulee.

Service is polite but not very well informed. The management makes a special effort to greet guests warmly and to make them feel at home. Savino's is a solid Italian addition to Dupont Circle dining, a pleasant place to while away an evening.


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