- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Cafe Ettore, a newcomer in Washington’s Palisades area, mixes contemporary Italian recipes with exquisite ingredients and excellent preparation. How can you go wrong with that? You almost can’t.

With a couple of minor exceptions, the food is amazing. Chef and owner Hector Playuk, who was born in Italy to an Italian mother and a Russian father and who spent most of his life in Argentina, says his goal is to serve contemporary Italian dishes at reasonable prices to his neighborhood.

True, Cafe Ettore’s clientele is mostly local, but ?moderately priced contemporary Italian food? far from adequately describes the sumptuous cuisine Mr. Playuk whips up.

Tasting the Caesar salad in a Parmesan basket is like meeting the love of one’s life — all previous affairs pale in comparison. The romaine is crisp and fresh, the croutons garlicky and homemade, the Parmesan basket not just decoration, but very tasty and, finally, the dressing merely hints at the richness of its contents.

Another delicious appetizer is the clams and mussels marinara. The marinara sauce was hotter than expected, but it combined well with the perfectly steamed shellfish and homemade crostini.

Speaking of little spicy toasts, each table gets small saucers of delicious olives and crostini. It’s a nice touch and so popular at our table that a couple of seconds of daydreaming and the treats were gone…

Other appetizers include calamari, warm baby spinach salad and golden apple salad with roasted walnuts and yogurt. Mr. Playuk, who says he plans to add more summery dishes to the menu in the next couple of weeks, also plans to serve entree salads and sandwiches for those who prefer lighter fare. Cafe Ettore is anything but light, but fortunately, the serving sizes are relatively small, meant to satisfy but not bloat.

The lobster-and-asparagus ravioli (all pasta is made in-house and is cooked al dente, giving the pasta that hard-to-achieve slight resistance with the first bite) is served with delicious Maine lobster shavings, asparagus, and roasted shallots in a slightly spicy brandy-tomato sauce. The flavors and textures blend perfectly in this chef’s favorite.

The crepe di spinach — crepe stuffed with spinach, diced chicken, sweet onions and bechamel sauce and topped with Parmesan cheese — neither sounds terribly interesting or looks that good. But looks deceive. This, too, is a nice choice.

The filetto alla Ettore is another excellent main course: roasted Angus beef tenderloin with Parmesan potatoes, roasted shallots and truffle jus. The cut was top-quality and prepared to order — rare.

The baked Chilean sea bass with sauteed spinach, a special of the day, was a bit disappointing. The excellently prepared fish was placed on a sauce that, according to Mr. Playuk, was Marsala-based, but it tasted more like a mustard sauce, the type you might find at a chicken nuggets place. It overpowered the subtle flavor of the bass. The spinach was superb, perfectly sauteed and lightly seasoned with garlic.

Except for the crepe di spinach, the presentation is quite nice: large white plates, sprinkled sauces and garnishes that create a little height and visual interest. The space also is tasteful. It is long and narrow, seating 60. One wall is an earthy red, the other an earthy yellow. The oversized art is by local artists — and quite good.

The service is a weak link — very personable and knowledgeable but not very quick. It took 30 to 40 minutes for us to get our main course. Fortunately, Mr. Playuk is a very charming and unpretentious man and spends time at each table discussing menu choices and world travels, which helps pass the time pleasantly.

Mr. Playuk also treats his guests to the occasional glass of wine. In our case, it was a moscato from Uruguay, light and refreshing. The wine list is extensive, with many Italian, Argentine and Uruguayan imports. Californians soon will join the list.

The dessert menu is extensive and homemade. The lemon gelato with a limoncello center covered with meringue bits is a nice hot-day or -night choice. It’s refreshing, but not tart like sorbet. The tiramisu is a melt-in-the-mouth delight. The flavor is mild but distinctive, the consistency creamy.

The zabaglione, which is another chef’s favorite, however, should be ordered in cold weather. This warm dessert, which is made of egg yolks, sugar and Marsala wine, is too rich for the Washington summer.

Ninety percent of Cafe Ettore’s clientele lives in the Palisades area, but the restaurant deserves to draw crowds from the entire Washington region. It’s not just the high-quality — and local when possible — ingredients, the innovative menu, the excellent preparation, the tasteful and interesting decor and friendly service. Mr. Playuk also shares of himself — and he’s colorful but modest (always an interesting combination) — making the already excellent dining experience even more satisfying. Actually, there’s no ?almost? — you can’t go wrong at Cafe Ettore.

RESTAURANT: Cafe Ettore, 5120 MacArthur Blvd. NW; 202/244-0054.

HOURS: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and until 9:30 p.m. Sunday.

PRICES: Starters, $6 to $14; main courses, $15 to $26; desserts, $9 to $10.

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible


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