- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2003

Every neighborhood should have a Mancini's Cafe, a refreshingly unpretentious but very good Italian-with-a-twist restaurant in Alexandria's Del Ray area.
This may not be the type of place you take a visiting executive because this restaurant is about food and not frills. It's the perfect place, however, for a laid-back dinner for two in love or maybe a dozen of your best friends and dearest family members.
Owner-chef Barbara Mancini has been in business for seven years and makes everything in-house, from bread to exquisite pastries. Yes, a word of caution: The desserts are to die for, so make room for at least one, or maybe two, of these divine sweets.
The menu is made up of traditional Italian dishes such as chicken a la Marsala and not-so-Italian choices such as grilled fresh salmon. What all dishes have in common is that they're on the light side and prepared and presented competently.
Three of our entrees came with asparagus because that was the "vegetable of the day" one evening.
But first things first: There are eight appetizers in addition to four salads. As with the entrees, most of the appetizers are Italian with a few exceptions.
The tomato-and-mozzarella salad comes with four generous slices of very good mozzarella cheese and tasty tomatoes. Pesto is drizzled on top as a dressing, a tasteful touch. Other Italian staples on the antipasto menu include bruschetta and Tuscan white beans and shrimp salad.
The spinach-artichoke dip is pleasantly light on the cheese and cream cheese, while its namesake ingredients are fresh and plentiful. It is served with pita triangles and bagel chips and is a good dish for sharing.
Entrees are served with a choice of french fries (again very family-friendly and low on the frill factor); garlic mashed potatoes, which are light and flavorful; or rice. Also included is one vegetable of the day or a side dish of linguini marinara, which, unfortunately, was only average.
The veal Marsala, however, was several notches above ordinary. The veal medallions were very tender, and the mushroom sauce was flavorful but not too rich. The shrimp scampi also was great, very fresh and light with its white wine, lemon, garlic and herb sauce coating perfectly sauteed shrimp.
The lasagna (on a Thursday, macaroni night) was delicious but not extraordinary. It was served with a fresh mesclun salad and tasty, baked-in-house garlic bread.
The grilled fresh salmon, an example of the not-necessarily-Italian dishes on the menu, was a tad overdone but still very good and served with a tasty lemon-butter sauce. The menu also lists eight pastas and sandwiches, which are especially popular at lunch.
All meals are served on robust earthenware plates painted with colorful flowers. Again, there is nothing show-offish about this place. These are the kind of plates you might find in the Italian countryside.
The interior also is simple, but cozy, with benches and chairs around a dozen solid-wood tables, most with a good view of the extraordinary pastry case.
One wall has a sunflower mural, and one of the shop windows is full of fluffy Easter bunnies. Yes, this is feminine Italian. Not only are the dishes lighter than usual, but otherwise almost mandatory Italian-American decorating schemes, such as photos of Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio or Chianti bottles on the table, are nowhere to be seen.
The wine selection is as straightforward and as fairly priced as the rest of the menu, with individual glasses of wine starting at $4.50.
While the appetizers and entrees were fine, nothing deserves praise more than Mancini's fantastic pastries. Displayed in a case, the pastries at least 50 homemade treats greet customers at the entrance.
The blueberry tart with lemon curd filling keeps a perfect balance between sweet and tart; the chocolate-covered macaroon is simple but scrumptious; and the world-class raspberry marquis is unbelievable. How could anyone worry about calories when confronted with such pastries?
Mancini's is friendly to the palate, eye and pocketbook, with a splash of very good service. Italians' love of food has created some of the best cuisine in the world, and Mancini's continues this tradition in a straightforward way that may leave little room for innovation but offers lots in the way of solid taste sensation.
It's a little place, but worthy of visits from the entire Washington area.

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