- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Magic is in the air on I Street Northwest — and on the table, too.

Primi Piatti chef-owner Savino Recine has discovered a talent for sleight of hand as well as for turning out fine Italian cooking. Every Saturday night, the chef cooks a four course Roman and Tuscan specialty dinner (pasta, salad, fish or meat and dessert) accompanied by a live magic act — all for $37.50 per person (plus tax, tip and drinks). There’s no charge for the enchantment.

Mr. Recine is a mentalist-magician, a master of illusion, and his tableside magic is fun to watch. You can’t figure it out, so don’t try. If you want tableside magic on Saturdays, a crystal ball is placed on the table. Mr. Recine will also entertain on other days for a special occasion. To paraphrase an airline captain, just sit back, relax and enjoy the flight of fancy.

Primi Piatti’s pasta dishes are outstanding. A dish of fiocchi, tiny purse-shaped pasta, can easily be shared as an appetizer. The little morsels are filled with a mix of pear and Taleggio cheese in a cream sauce. The stuffing is subtle and delicious. We scraped every bit of sauce left on the plate with some of the fresh Tuscan-style bread (made without salt).

Equally splendid and shareable is a dish of tortellini stuffed with ricotta and served in a light cream sauce with baby lima beans.

At lunch and at dinner, Primi Piatti serves a full range of pasta dishes from a vegetable lasagna with basil pesto to mint tagliatelle with lamb and olives. Some of the other dishes are penne with diced monkfish, calamari and rock shrimp; fettuccine with wild mushrooms; agnolotti stuffed with ricotta and spinach in a walnut sauce; ravioli and capellini.

Perhaps best of all is the restaurant’s outstanding mushroom risotto. The risotto is finished in an enormous wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano from which most of the cheese has been removed. In the final stages of cooking, some of the cheese is scraped from the sides of the wheel and mixed into the rice. The result is a rich, fragrant combination of mushrooms, rice, cheese and truffle essence.

Cold and warm starters are the same at lunch and dinner. Tuna carpaccio, house-cured duck breast and beef carpaccio are some of the cold appetizers; eggplant stuffed with provolone and baked in a tomato sauce, puff pasty with goat cheese and oven-dried tomatoes, fried oysters and a brochette of sea scallops are the hot starters.

Three plump sea scallops, nicely cooked to retain flavor and moisture, are served on an excellent puree of cannellini beans. The dish makes a good small main course.

Veal plays an important role in the main course menu: osso buco (both veal and lamb shank), scaloppine Milanese (breaded) and scaloppine in a truffle cream sauce. Rabbit, pork tenderloin, a grilled filet of beef and stuffed chicken breast round out the meat dishes.

The chicken breast is particularly good: thin slices of chicken are rolled around a filling of prosciutto and creamy butternut squash, roasted so that the outside of the rolls is nicely browned and crisp, and topped with slivers of lemon peel. The chicken remains tender and juicy. Served with a mix of baby carrots and baby fava beans, it’s a delicate but robust dish.

One of the specialties of Primi Piatti has always been its grilled whole fish. What’s available depends on the market. At a recent dinner, orata (bream) from the Mediterranean was available. It was not presented as a whole grilled fish but came to the table already boned and filleted, slightly mushy in texture and lacking the smoky flavor of wood-grilled fish. The sides, alas, were banal undercooked green beans with a few sliced carrots and mashed potatoes. A good grilled dish — be it meat or fish — deserves something more imaginative, especially given the variety of vegetables used in Italian cooking.

On the other hand, a tuna filet, marinated in balsamic vinegar then grilled, also served over baby favas in a red wine reduction, was excellent, cooked to order, fresh and flavorful. Other fish dishes include the ubiquitous salmon and monkfish, as well as fillet of red snapper and sea bass.

Almost all of the appetizers, salads, soups, pastas (except for the risotto) and main dishes are available at lunch at slightly reduced prices. The wood-burning pizza oven is put to work at lunch, turning out lovely thin-crusted pizzas.

Desserts include a wonderfully rich, dark chocolate hazelnut cake served with a vanilla creme anglaise and a circle of crushed hazelnuts. Superb.

The wine list is a good one — mostly Italian wines and a nice selection of wines by the glass, including a refreshing pinot grigio and a smooth, pleasant dolcetto. Service is attentive and professional.

Although Primi Piatti has high-end prices, it’s neither stuffy nor formal, and reminiscent of an Italian city trattoria. Mirrors on both sides enlarge the relatively narrow dining room, stretching it to an illusion of infinite. The windows fronting on I Street can be opened in warm weather for semi alfresco dining; the open kitchen at the rear of the restaurant adds a homey touch.

The food disappears quickly, almost as quickly as the cards disappear and reappear in Mr. Recine’s magic tricks.

RESTAURANT: Primi Piatti, 2013 I St. NW; 202/223-3600

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday, although the restaurant may close earlier on Monday and Tuesday evenings

PRICES: Starters, $9.50 to $12 (lunch), $11 to $15.50 (dinner); pasta $15.50 to $19.50 (lunch), $18.50 to $22.50 (dinner); main courses $20.50 to $24.50 (lunch), $27.50 to $34 (dinner)

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards.

PARKING: Street parking and $8 dinner valet parking.

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible.

METRO: Farragut West

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