- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 6, 2008

There never seems to be a surfeit of Italian restaurants, whether neighborhood trattorias or elegant downtown ristorantes. Sometimes there’s a gimmick: the best pizza, the most authentic pesto al Genovese or robust Sicilian specialties. At Assaggi Mozzarella Bar, chef-owner Domenico Cornacchia offers several types of mozzarella at lunch and dinner: burrata, buffalo mozzarella from Italy and California, cow mozzarella from Virginia and fresh buffalo ricotta, also from Italy. Two condiments can be chosen to accompany each serving: green-tomato marmalade, fresh tomatoes, roasted peppers, marinated eggplant and basil-marinated zucchini.

The Italian buffalo mozzarella was cold and hard, but the tomato marmalade and roasted peppers were delicious. Combined with the wonderful crusty bread served at Assaggi - Italian for “tastes” - this is a good start for lunch or dinner.

On another occasion, the burrata was available in a caprese salad with slices of deep red, ripe tomato, a touch of olive oil and a sprinkling of basil. The burrata is a wonderfully creamy, delicate and delicious version of mozzarella.

Pastas can be a main course or shared as a first course. The orecchiette (little ears) are served in a sauce of mild Italian sausage with broccoli raab and a little pesto in the sauce. The pesto seems superfluous, but the broccoli adds a pleasant touch of bitterness to the bland sauce.

House-made gnocchi are very good - although a bit soft - and are served in a tomato-and-caciocavallo sauce with a little veal ragu. Caciocavallo is a provolonelike cheese that adds flavor and richness to the sauce.

Pappardelle are served with a Bolognese sauce made of beef, veal and pork; squid ink tagliolini are prepared simply with calamari and fennel in a sauce of garlic and olive oil; and ravioli are filled with buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes and basil. Whole-wheat and gluten-free pastas also are available.

First courses vary from a soup to a salad of asparagus with a poached egg and crispy prosciutto. Fried calamari and baby shrimp are paired with anchovies and zucchini in a parsley sauce, and grilled octopus is combined with celery-heart salad. Sliced red and golden beets topped with arugula, thin slices of fennel, hazelnuts and a sprinkling of mild ricotta cheese makes a fine summery starter.

A grilled sardine and a sea scallop easily could serve as a light entree instead of a first course; the sardine tasted a bit excessively fishy, but the scallop was perfect.

Warm grilled prawns and calamari and cool asparagus makes an excellent summer main course. The prawns are grilled perfectly, and the squid is deliciously tender. The combination with the asparagus and a little lemon vinaigrette is very good indeed.

Fish dishes include grilled whole Mediterranean dorade (sea bream) served with seasonal vegetables; pan-seared skate with eggplant in lemon butter; and sauteed fillet of halibut with mussels.

Chicken cacciatore, New York strip steak, a lamb chop and sauteed veal skirt steak with buffalo ricotta, each with appropriate sides, are good meat options.

The lunch menu includes substantial sandwiches, entree salads, chicken paillard, an artichoke-and-mushroom frittata and grilled sausage.

Desserts include Italian doughnuts, more akin to Spain’s churros than traditional doughnuts. They are crisp, hot and sprinkled with sugar. The sauce is a cool custard version of the traditional hot sabayon sauce made with Madeira, sugar and egg yolks, and it enhances the doughnuts nicely.

The waiting time between courses can be long, but good meals abound, and the service is pleasant. Assaggi occupies the space where Centro once was in downtown Bethesda.

RESTAURANT: Assaggi Mozzarella Bar, 4838 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda, 301/951-1988

HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 or 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and until 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday to 11 or 11:30 p.m.; menu changes from lunch to dinner at 4 p.m.

PRICES: Starters $6 to $18; pastas and main courses $9 to $14 (lunch), $15 to $29 (dinner); desserts $9

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Municipal parking lot a half-block away; dinner valet parking Tuesday through Saturday, $7

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Bethesda

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