- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Pesto, a year-old Italian eatery in Washington’s Woodley Park area, serves refreshingly unpretentious and expertly prepared Italian favorites in a cozy but simple setting.

The location — a little secluded, a few blocks north of Woodley Park’s restaurant row — must be the only reason this delightful restaurant isn’t packed (which is fortunate for its many regulars) every night of the week.

Owner and chef Vincenzo Belvito, who comes from Conversano in the south of Italy, specializes in understated, no-frills cooking. His presentation is simple, and, true to his southern heritage, he favors olive oil and vegetable sauces to the creamier, dairy-based sauces more common in the north.

The menu, too, is uncomplicated, with no more than eight appetizer choices, a half-dozen pastas, non-pasta entrees and desserts.

A great starter is the carpaccio with arugula and Parmesan cheese. The delicious, thinly sliced marinated tenderloin is accompanied by a few slices of flavorful Parmesan and leaves of arugula.

The portion, as with all of Pesto’s dishes, is small, at least according to American standards, but certainly sufficient.

The portobello mushroom and roasted garlic soup, a special of the day, was very tasty and also a good example of Mr. Belvito’s understated presentation. The oatmeal-colored soup came in a white china bowl without any garnish or adornments. In other words, it was served the way an Italian grandma might serve portobello mushroom soup — without cutesy mini toast wedges or herbs sprinkled on top.

The wild boar sausage served on a small polenta patty with a splash of balsamic vinaigrette, another special that evening, also hit the spot with its mild but unique flavor.

Other starters include classic Caesar salad and fresh mozzarella with tomato, oregano and olive oil.

Honoring the restaurant’s name, we tried one of the pesto entrees, the beef and herb ravioli with tomato and basil pesto. It was perfect. The pasta, made in house, was fresh and flavorful. The sauce was delicious.

Another great entree, a special for the fall and winter season, was the osso buco. Again, the preparation was excellent; the lamb barely needed a nudge to fall off the bone. The seasoning was light but just right.

The veal scaloppini topped with prosciutto and sage was the only — slight — disappointment of the evening. The seasoning and ingredient combination was perfect, but the meat could have been a bit more tender. It did not pass our tenderness test — veal scaloppini should be tender enough to cut with a fork, but we needed a knife.

Other entree and pasta choices include farfalle pasta with prosciutto and mushroom sauce, penne pasta with spicy tomato and capers sauce, Atlantic salmon grilled with basil sauce and breast of chicken with artichokes and shallots.

The wine list features a good range of Italian wines, but the list is limited to 17 choices. Three wines are offered by the glass.

There is no written dessert menu, but Mr. Belvito usually offers about six choices, all made in house, at $6 each. Among staples is the tiramisu, which can only be described as melt-in-the mouth perfection.

The amaretto torte, the chef’s favorite, is so scrumptious that it alone should draw a crowd to Pesto. Even after our three-course menu, we wanted more of this decadent treat.

The service gets high marks too. The waiters are personable, but not too familiar or chirpy, and very attentive.

The decor — yellow walls adorned with framed photos of Italian attractions (such as Rome’s Colosseum and Milan’s cathedral), portraits and maps — is nice and comfortable and adds to the laid-back, neighborhood feel of Pesto. Although the restaurant has white tablecloths and nice, weighty flatware, there’s nothing fancy about it.

Two dining rooms seat about 95 people, but on weekdays, unless a big crowd is expected, only one of the dining rooms is open.

Pesto is the place to go if you want an excellently prepared Italian meal in an unpretentious but cozy setting. Mr. Belvito never bombards his guests with too many flavor sensations or over-the-top presentations.

He allows each ingredient to be savored and the food to speak for itself without the aid of elaborate garnishes. How refreshing it is that someone has the confidence and skill to keep it sensationally simple.

RESTAURANT: Pesto, 2915 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202/332-8300

HOURS: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday and until 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

PRICES: Starters, $5 to $9; main courses, $11 to $18; desserts, $6

CREDIT CARDS: All major credit cards

PARKING: Street parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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