- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2006

The creators of the loungy Vermilion, delightfully winey Tallula and eclectic Evening Star Cafe have opened another restaurant in Alexandria: Rustico.

This neighborhood bar with Italian-inspired food at the northern, newly developed edge of downtown Alexandria is distinctly different from the other three — unfortunately, in a bad way.

It feels as if the owners looked at their roster of restaurants and said, “What market niche have we not yet filled?” Kind of like Coca-Cola creating Cherry Coke to see if it could bottle a larger market share.

So, the Vermilion-Tallula-Evening Star folks seem to have figured they could do with beer what they did with wine at Tallula, namely offer many kinds in different sizes and different sampler constellations.

And the food? Make it cheaper and blander to please a wider audience? The result is a glorified Bennigan’s.

Nothing is particularly bad, but nothing is particularly good, either. Well, except some terrific grilled scallops served with corn and green bean succotash and pesto sauce. The large scallops are perfectly prepared and nicely seasoned — mostly with lemon — combining nicely with the mild, fresh and crisp vegetables and piquant sauce.

The filling-a-market-niche idea also seems to have spilled over into the interior design and ambience. Where Vermilion is red, velvety, cozy and seductive, Rustico is spacious (seats hundreds), a little crazy (colorful wall mosaics that include inlays of whole cups and plates) and a little rowdy with its long bar, great beer selection and baseball-blaring, wall-mounted televisions.

In a bar like this, shouldn’t there be music, maybe even a jukebox? Nope. Not here. The only sound is from the hundreds of talking and laughing guests (on a recent Wednesday night the place was packed).

The noise certainly didn’t come from the servers. They say very little and when they do speak they are not very informative. “Which seafood dish would you recommend?” The response: “I like the scallops.”

Well, so did we. But as a server, why aren’t you telling us how it’s prepared and why it’s a good choice? Again, very much like Bennigan’s, friendly, but bland. Except for the hostess, who wasn’t even friendly. We paused for a second to take in the view of a wall-covering mosaic, when she said, annoyed, “Are you ready?” We were not ready for that kind of treatment, but we trudged on to our table thinking the food might make up for this initial rudeness.

Not so. Among appetizers, we didn’t find any real winners, although there were some bright spots. The Chesapeake crab vegetable soup was a nice, spicy, crab-packed choice. The cured meats, including a delicious bresaola, on the Mediterranean antipasto board were great, but portions were stingy. Instead the board was dominated by a pile of roasted marcona almonds, which are supposed to do all kinds of healthful things to one’s body but these were not interesting, and a heap of so-so marinated olives.

The grilled romaine with Caesar dressing, served with goat cheese and cornbread croutons, was uneven. The goat cheese combined nicely with the romaine, but sweet cornbread croutons? Innovative, certainly, but not in an appetizing way.

Risks were also taken with the tomato melon gazpacho. Not a good idea. It is too spicy and the consistency is awkwardly fizzy. Maybe seltzer water was among the ingredients? The black bean soup was average.

Among the entrees, the scallops, as mentioned above, was our favorite. The orecchiette had a tasty Italian sausage and fennel sauce but the pasta disappointed, tasting as if it came out of a box.

The wood-fired pizza had a tough crust, the tomato sauce needed spices for a flavor boost, and the layer of cheese was ridiculously thick.

If the starter and main courses were a disappointing average to good, the dessert menu was worse. Almond polenta pound cake and strawberries with a balsamic drizzle was odd. The gritty polenta texture with vinegary strawberries? Not for us. The flourless chocolate was on the gooey side.

After all this negative glass-half-empty stuff, you might be ready for some glass-half-full pointers. There are some:

Moderate to low pricing, friendly staff (except for that one hostess), speedy service, vibrant clientele, great beer selection and, if one chooses very carefully, good food.

RESTAURANT: Rustico Restaurant & Bar, 827 Slaters Lane, Alexandria; 703/224-5051

HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; bar open until midnight

PRICES: Starters $5 to $13; main course $7 to $13 (lunch), $12 to $23 (dinner); dessert $6

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

PARKING: Free parking lot

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