Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Even with a reservation, you’ll have to wait for your table at A la Lucia, a neighborhood restaurant not much bigger than a matchbox on Madison Street in Alexandria, three blocks from the Potomac River.

Michael Nayeri’s Italian restaurant has been popular since it opened last year, and for good reason. Mr. Nayeri was formerly the maitre d’ at Roberto Donna’s Galileo in Washington.

There’s space for six booths and six tables. A refrigerated case of bottles of white wine greets patrons as they enter. Behind the case and the counter, a waiting diner catches a glimpse of the kitchen, whetting an appetite as Mr. Nayeri and his waiters scurry back and forth with steaming platters of pasta and bottles of Italian wines.

The decor is whimsical with faux 1920s photos a la Rudolph Valentino on the wall. A vase of brightly colored tulips sits beside the cash register, echoed by small vases on some of the tables.

A la Lucia’s forte is basic, rustic-style Italian dishes, well prepared with fresh ingredients. No fancy preparations, towers or curious mixtures here. The menu is not extensive, but each dish is prepared with care. There are four antipasti, half a dozen soups and salads, and 10 pastas and an equal number of main courses.

Among the starters, the mussels in tomato sauce are terrific. It’s a large portion, easily shared. The warm mussels are plump, medium-sized, and cooked to the magical point between under and overcooking so they melt on the tongue. The tomato sauce is rich and chunky, blending perfectly with the mussels.

The mixed antipasti consists of marinated baby artichokes, black olives, excellent grilled portobello mushrooms and roasted peppers. It’s a very Italian combination.

At A la Lucia, the dish is flavored with subtlety so that the flavor of the ingredients themselves, rather than the dressing, is important.

Salads include a Caesar with Parmigiano cheese, arugula with Parmigiano, and endive with Gorgonzola. Greens are crisp and fresh; the vinaigrette is light and flavorful.

Soups include such standards as minestrone, lentil, and a prosciutto-based bean soup.

Pastas can be shared as a first course, or ordered in half portions, ample as a starter. Penne alla puttanesca — a dish said to have been invented by the ladies of the Roman night because it is quick to prepare and the ingredients are usually on hand in an Italian kitchen — is a fine combination of tomatoes, anchovies, black olives and capers. A la Lucia’s version is rich in tomatoes and the sauce is nicely spiced without burning.

The little clams in a dish of linguine with clams in spicy white sauce were sweet and delicious morsels. The linguine, cooked al dente, with flecks of red pepper and parsley, were also quite good, although the sauce could have used more white wine to cut a slightly oily aftertaste. The linguine are also served with sea scallops and pesto sauce.

Other pasta dishes include pappardelle with veal ragu, rigatoni with spicy sausage, peppers and tomato sauce, lobster ravioli with a cream and tomato sauce, and fussili with tomato sauce and sauteed eggplant.

Grilled sea scallops and grilled rockfish were excellent. In both cases, the fish was perfectly cooked, just long enough to keep both flavor and freshness. The broccoli de rabe served with the rockfish and the spinach accompanying the scallops complemented their respective dishes nicely.

Veal panzanella was a disappointment. Described on the menu as “very thin sliced, breaded, and pan fried,” the large veal scallop had been pounded to the point where it no longer had a veal texture; it was heavily breaded, and fried. Neither the taste nor the texture pleased, although the salsa served with the veal, a mix of diced tomatoes, scallions, olive oil and balsamic vinegar, helped. Italian restaurants usually do better by veal.

Other choices include a rack of lamb with rosemary and garlic sauce, a grilled pork chop with peppercorn and cream sauce, grilled rib-eye steak, grilled salmon, and osso buco.

Desserts consist primarily of many different flavors of ice creams and sorbets, which, although not made in house, are produced privately for the restaurant. Cannoli, the crunchy deep-fried Italian tube-shaped pastry filled with sweet ricotta, is delicious, especially accompanied by a cup of good espresso. A la Lucia’s cannoli has bits of chocolate rather than candied fruit in the ricotta.

The lunch menu includes a number of panini with combinations of cheese and ham, chicken, tuna salad or vegetables, several pasta dishes and four thin pizzas. Prices are considerably less dear at lunchtime.

Word is out that Mr. Nayeri is going to take over the empty building next to A la Lucia and turn it into a wine bar and extension of the restaurant. Given the restaurant’s extensive and excellent wine list, that sounds like a good idea. A la Lucia offers a wide variety of Italian reds and whites and an interesting number of California bottles.

There’s good eating and drinking in Mr. Nayeri’s cozy nook.

RESTAURANT: A la Lucia, 315 Madison St., Alexandria. 703/836-5123

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday; dinner 5 to 9:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday and until 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday

PRICES: Starters, $4 to $6.50 (lunch), $4.50 to $7.50 (dinner); main courses, including lunch sandwiches and pizzas, $5.50 to $12 (lunch), $11 to $22 (dinner)

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Ample street parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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