- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Argia’s on North Washington Street in Falls Church resembles an Italian restaurant in San Francisco’s North Beach, or perhaps a genuine trattoria in Torino or Genoa.

The diner enters through a large bar cheerfully animated with voices, a television and good fellowship. Up a few stairs to the left is the dining room. There’s also an entrance directly from the parking lot in the rear of the restaurant.

There are no tablecloths on the clean wooden tables, and some of the tabletops show signs of considerable wear, but the napkins are of honest cotton, and the food is simple yet sophisticated. A delightful mural runs along an entire wall, a rustic Tuscan scene in gentle pastel tones: rolling vine-covered countryside; villagers returning from work in the fields; several priests strolling through the landscape; trees, flowers, farm animals and space. It’s cheerful and charming.

Framed photographs of families, children and babies line the opposite wall, with wood-framed mirrors with hooks for coats and hats. The walls are of a mottled yellow reminiscent of late-afternoon Italian sunshine. Baskets frame the large picture window in the front of the dining room.

The patrons range from babes in strollers to elderly couples carefully going over the menu. It’s a place for young couples, for families of two and three generations, for neighbors who don’t feel like cooking. Argia’s is a true neighborhood restaurant where everyone feels welcome, thanks to the efficient and cheerful staff to which everyone, regardless of age or sex, is a “guy,” as in “Are you guys ready to order?”

What brings Argia into the Italian trattoria mode more than the surroundings and the clientele is the food, which is fine. Everything we tried was top quality and delicious, although some dishes would benefit from a little less seasoning. Argia’s is not inexpensive, but there’s value for the money.

Starters are a mix of the traditional, some with unusual touches. The ubiquitous and delicious insalata caprese is especially good at this time of the year, when ripe tomatoes are mixed with good mozzarella and fresh basil. Fried calamari with a bit of Parmesan cheese and basil and mussels steamed in white wine and garlic are staples for lunch and dinner. The caprese can be ordered as a sandwich (panini) at lunch.

Polenta with meat sauce (Bolognese) can be ordered at dinner, as can a terrific carpaccio of beef. The beef is served with thinly sliced apple wedges, walnuts and shaved Parmesan. The combination is excellent and unusual.

Soup changes each day. At a recent lunch, we tried a roasted red pepper soup topped with shredded basil. The soup, served cold, had a rich pepper taste, which was not lost despite the fiery addition of lots of pepper, a la Thai rather than Italy.

An excellent beginning to a meal is to share an order of pasta. Argia’s offers its pasta in two sizes, solo and famiglia. The solo pasta is large enough to share as an appetizer, and one of the best is spaghetti con salsiccia. It’s a dish that combines mild Italian sausage with bits of bacon, roasted peppers, tomatoes, lots of garlic and olive oil — a lovely, fragrant combination that lingers on the palate.

Other pastas include lasagna, spaghetti with meat sauce, fettuccine with scallops, and cannelloni stuffed with chicken and mushrooms and baked in a tomato bechamel sauce. The pasta of the day on a recent visit was a carbonara with Italian bacon, onions and egg yolk.

For lunch, the kitchen prepares several panini on Italian bread, each served with a salad of mixed greens. The lunch menu includes a daily frittata, an Italian omelet, which is deliciously moist and flavorful and served on a bed of mixed greens. The fresh ingredients are mixed into the eggs, rather than as a filling in the classic French omelet; mine included tomato dice, bits of bacon, garlic and lots of fresh herbs. The omelet is round and perfectly cooked, so the center is almost liquid. One of the best around.

Main courses include a fish of the day, grilled scallops, grilled beef tenderloin and pork tenderloin wrapped in pancetta with a black pepper crust.

Saltimbocca alla Romana is a fine dish, albeit somewhat oversalted. Thin scaloppine of veal are layered with sage leaves and slices of prosciutto. The dish is served with fresh sauteed spinach, a little polenta and an excellent white wine sauce.

A light main course available at both lunch and dinner is eggplant al formaggio. Grilled slices of eggplant are alternated with slices of beefsteak tomatoes and topped with a bit of creamy goat cheese and a basil leaf. The combination of the eggplant and the fresh, ripe tomatoes, with just a touch of cheese, is delicious. In this dish, as in the soup, pepper is abundant.

Chicken Parmesan is actually a version of saltimbocca with breaded chicken breast layered with prosciutto and fontina cheese and served with sauteed French beans and a tomato Marsala sauce.

Desserts are tempting. A lovely ending to a summer meal is a mixture of ripe raspberries, strawberries and blueberries topped with a cold, creamy zabaglione sauce.

The wine list is limited, mainly Italian, but adequate. Service is courteous and friendly, and the ambience is one of pleasant casualness, without pretension. Argia’s is perfect for a relaxed evening with good food.

RESTAURANT: Argia’s, 124 N. Washington St., Falls Church, near the intersection of state Route 7 and U.S. Route 29; 703/534-1033 (no reservations taken)

HOURS: Lunch 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner 5 to 9:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday

PRICES: Salads, appetizers and panini $6 to $16; pasta $10 to $15 (lunch), $12 to $30 (dinner); main courses $9 to $10 (lunch), $10 to $25 (dinner)

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Free parking lot to the side and behind the restaurant

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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