Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Notti bianche. White nights it is, but not St. Petersburg and the romantic white nights of the north. The homelike Italian trattoria on New Hampshire Avenue in Foggy Bottom is named for a contemporary Roman arts festival.

Notti Bianche is everything that its predecessor in the space, Nectar, was not. It’s neither pretentious nor precious, with no wine steward just off the turnip wagon into town pretending to be a snooty sommelier, pushing expensive wines. No magnifying glass is needed to find the food on the plate. This staff is friendly and helpful.

But neither is Notti Bianche commonplace. The little restaurant in the George Washington University Inn, a couple of blocks from the Kennedy Center, offers several excellent dishes, especially the pasta preparations, which can be ordered in full or half portions.

The dining room is simple. Ochre walls and a few decorations. The tables are close together, so eavesdropping is unavoidable (and sometimes entertaining). But it’s the food that counts, and Executive Chef Anthony Chittum is doing a fine job. The menu isn’t long, but it’s carefully chosen, with high points.

Mr. Chittum is an almost local native; he’s from Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Only 28 years old, he has worked at Aria Trattoria in the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center Building, and spent five years as sous chef at Equinox. He looks over the kitchen at Dish in the River Inn, a few blocks away, as well. Dish, Notti Bianche and Circle Bistro at One Washington Circle are all part of Potomac Hospitality Services.

Mr. Chittum’s wife, Heather, is the talented pastry chef for Notti Bianche.

As long as real tomatoes are still available, begin with a traditional insalata caprese. At Notti Bianche, the salad is a combination of ripe red and yellow tomatoes of different sizes and sorts, slices of good buffalo mozzarella, a sprinkling of basil and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Fresh as summer. Or try the chilled tomato soup with a little island of poached rock shrimp, toasted pine nuts and mascarpone cheese.

Little neck clams in a white-wine butter sauce on a bed of rapini are tiny morsels of heaven, tender and sweet. The bitter-sweet, slightly spicy rapini is equally delicious.

Hearts of romaine are topped with lovely little white anchovies and an olive puree. Mission figs are married to gorgonzola and prosciutto, and it’s a happy marriage. A trio of bruschettas offers tastes of calamari, chicken liver mousse and eggplant caponata.

A salad of cannelloni beans and arugula topped with a soft-shell crab, alas, was not up to the standards of the mussels. The small crab was so heavily breaded that it was all crisp and barely any crab. The combination of the crab and beans, like the beans and the arugula, is not a happy one.

Pastas are irresistible and the half portions are a perfect size as a starter. Ricotta gnocchi are made of caramelized fingerling potatoes and served in Ligurian style with string beans and smooth basil pesto. It’s a wonderfully rich and satisfying dish.

Hand-rolled cannelloni are filled with bits of chicken and sausage in an excellent light cream sauce, but it’s uneven. The first time we tasted the dish, it was perfect; the second time, it was dry and could have used more sauce and seasoning.

The piece de resistance at a recent dinner was a superb risotto, fragrant with truffle oil and mushrooms. The rice was properly al dente, yet at once almost silken and creamy. As good as anything you could find in Umbria, where truffles are ubiquitous.

Main courses offer a nice mix of meat and fish. Roast chicken is a tender and juicy dish, well prepared and accompanied by braised kale and a lovely little Parmesan risotto cake. The kale is reminiscent of the excellent rapini served with the clams and is cooked so there is just a touch of sweetness to balance the bitterness of the greens.

We were not as lucky with the braised monkfish. Although served on a very good mix of Israeli couscous (the menu refers to it as Sardinian couscous), prosciutto, capers, olives and anchovies, the fish was braised to the point of dryness and appeared not to be freshly caught. The couscous consists of tiny pasta balls, also cooked al dente.

Rack of lamb is crusted with nuts and served with string beans and a sauce of yogurt and roasted garlic; wild salmon is paired with English cucumber, tomatoes and basil; and hanger steak comes with roasted potatoes and wilted chicory.

Notti Bianche is keeping up the trend of unusually flavored ice creams and the pastry chef appears to enjoy playing with new flavors. All the ice creams are rich, but very sweet. We tried a combination of white chocolate, pistachio and Nutella (made with hazelnut cream). Of the threesome we tried, I liked the hazelnut best. There’s a good chocolate hazelnut tart too.

Notti Bianche’s wine list is interesting and reasonable, with many relatively unknown Italian wines available both by the glass — small and large sizes — and by the bottle.

For lunch, the kitchen adds two sandwiches: fried eggplant with pecorino Romano cheese and tomato sauce, and a prosciutto panini with fontina cheese. Most of the dinner menu is available at lunchtime at slightly reduced prices. It might be a good idea to increase the number of sandwiches and entree salads at lunch as the neighborhood is rich in apartment houses and retirees, with a poverty of good restaurants.

Notti Bianche is off to a very good start.

RESTAURANT: Notti Bianche, 824 New Hampshire Ave. NW; 202/298-8085

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner 5 to 9:45 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and until 10:45 p.m. Friday and Saturday

PRICES: Appetizers, $5 to $11 (lunch), $5 to $12 (dinner); pastas $6 to $8 (half- orders, lunch), $7 to $9 (half-orders dinner), $12 to $17 (whole orders lunch), $13 to $18 (whole orders dinner); main courses $19 to $22 (lunch), $20 to $29 (dinner)

PARKING: Street parking; dinner valet parking $6 at the George Washington University Inn

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Foggy Bottom (Orange and Blue lines)

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