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In Washington, D.C., three restaurants rival Italy's best
By John Mariani
For a city built on power, money and French landscaping, Washington, D.C., has little to show for itself in the "department of deluxe dining," which is why Washingtonians insist on claiming the Inn at Little Washington, 70 miles away in Virginia, as their own. That's also why the presence of three of America's best Italian restaurants -- Galileo, Osteria Goldoni and Obelisk -- in Washington, seems nothing short of miraculous. Though very different from one another, each is of a caliber that's rare even in Italy.
Galileo (a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner), located downtown, turns 16 this year, which makes it the senior member of the trio. Its Piedmontese chef-owner, Roberto Donna, is an ebullient, expansive presence, who brings the full force of his talent and personality to menus that balance a traditional, regional approach with the more modern, refined styles found in Milan, Rome and Florence. Donna has made Galileo a showcase for the best that Italian viticulture has to offer, with monumental bottlings from stars like Angelo Gaja and Piero Antinori to exciting small-estate wines from regions like Umbria, Abruzzo, Sicily and Campania.
Unfortunately, Galileo's daunting success sowed the seeds of complacency. In the past five years, Donna has become notorious for departing his kitchen in order to open trattorias (Radicchio, Pesce and Dolcetto, among others) around town. He also assumed the unofficial mantle of Italian-food and -wine ambassador to the world, showcasing at food festivals and conducting culinary tours. Donna would not be seen at Galileo or even in Washington for weeks at a time, and although he left first-rate chefs running the kitchen, the restaurant's reputation suffered.
But there's hope. News that Donna would be cooking for two or three days a week -- usually Monday through Wednesday -- in a seven-table room at the rear of Galileo, was welcome indeed to those who still believe him to be one of the nation's finest chefs. In this "Laboratorio del Galileo," Donna cooks what he finds fresh each day at the market, and the results are glorious. My last meal at the Laboratorio was one of the greatest of my life -- a perfect balance of freshness, precision, taste, texture and novelty.
It was brilliant, yet I couldn't help but recall that the opportunity to eat this way comes infrequently, only when Donna's schedule allows him to cook at the Laboratorio. That you are not getting Donna's full attention in the main dining room (now overseen by chef Cesare Lanfraconi) means an unfortunate double- standard is at work. As good as the food on the regular menu may be, it is more conservative and clearly not the best that Galileo is capable of turning out.
You need have no such worries at Osteria Goldoni because Apulian-born chef Dario Leo, 36, is always on hand. His cooking is lustier and more traditional than Donna's. It's got a strong Venetian accent, due in part to the influence of partners Ingrid and Fabrizio Aielli. Fabrizio, who was chef de cuisine at the original Goldoni, now cooks at the new, more eclectic Teatro Goldoni.
The year-old, two-level downtown restaurant is casually elegant, with floor tiles in blue and ecru, stylized murals of Italian landscapes and yellow walls lighted by Venetian glass sconces. Venice is also the inspiration for many of the dishes on the menu, with seafood particularly well-represented. The simple renditions of fish, either sautéed or grilled, are impeccable. The same goes for meat items, like the quickly grilled beef fillet with sun-dried tomatoes and baby onions, or the roast veal medallions with a crisp-and-creamy potato-Montasio tart and a black-truffle porcini sauce.
Goldoni's wine list may not have the depth of Galileo's, but it offers a considerable range of most Italian regionals. There are Venetian bottlings like Maculan Chardonnay Riale 1996 ($48); eight different Amarones; big names like Solaia, Sassicia, Gaja Sorì San Lorenzo; and several labels of Brunello di Montalcino, including the extraordinary Case Basse Soldera 1993 ($340). In addition, there are welcome, reasonably priced offerings under $30 from Sicily, Friuli, Abruzzo, Sardinia and Apulia.
The 13-year-old Obelisk, set in a slender 1930s townhouse near Dupont Circle, is more modest than Galileo and Osteria Goldoni. Here the food is as warm and personal as the ambience and service. The atmosphere cuddles you like a family gathering. The self-taught chef-owner, Peter Pastan, is held in high esteem by those who treasure the simple pleasures of a true Italian trattoria. Each night, the handwritten menu offers what Pastan thinks would make a lovely dinner that evening (it's prix fixe and a bargain at $50). You begin with just a bite of something: a square of Gorgon-zola-topped polenta or perhaps chopped chicken livers on toasted bread -- and very good bread it is.
On my most recent visit, there were four entrées (secondi) to choose from, including a roasted pollastrino (young chicken) with crisp skin and meltingly tender flesh, accompanied by little fava beans and baby artichokes. The cotechino -- a highly seasoned, peppery pork sausage -- with seasoned stewed lentils, was a rare find; it was a cool-weather dish one doesn't encounter much outside of trattorias in Italy. Cheeses followed, then a munificent selection of desserts -- citrus sorbets, toasted-pecan ice cream, amandine custard, rhubarb pie, an old-fashioned but well-rendered cannoli, chocolate hazelnut cake and biscotti with a glass of vin santo.
Obelisk has an exemplary wine list for a place so small. It's ambitious, well-selected and, except for two Champagnes and a handful of American wines, wholly Italian. It is particularly notable for its broad selection of Italian whites, which these days are showing amazing diversity. Pastan lists Edoardo Valentini's extraordinary Trebbiano d'Abruzzo 1993 ($80), Tiefenbrunner's Feldmarschall von Fenner zu Fennberg 1998 ($49) and Schiopetto's Collio Tocai Friulano 1998 ($44). Among the reds are unusual beauties like Isola e Olena Syrah 1995 ($53), Rocche dei Manzoni Varo 1993 ($59), Antonelli Sagrantino di Montefalco 1996 ($48) and Caggiano Saledomini 1997 ($49).
Like its two more-glamorous competitors, Obelisk is a fixture in Washington. Together, in very different ways, the three set a very high standard for modern Italian cuisine, one few other cities in the nation can match. So if you're headed for the district, don't despair. There's no need to drive those 70 miles to Little Washington for a great meal.
-- John Mariani is the author of Dictionary of American Food & Drink (Lebhar-Friedman Books).
GALILEO DA ROBERTO DONNA
1110 21st St., N.W.
Telephone (202) 293-7191
Fax (202) 331-9364
Web site www.robertodonna.com/galileo.html
Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, daily; the Laborotorio is only open when Donna chooses.
Cost Lunch entrées, $9.95-$18.95; dinner entrées, $21.95-$32
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club, Discover
1120 20th St., N.W.
Telephone (202) 293-1511
Fax (202) 452-0875
Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, daily
Cost Lunch entrées, $9.95-$19.95; Dinner entrées, $19.95-$29.95
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club, Discover.
2029 P St., N.W.
Telephone (202) 872-1180
Open dinner, Tuesday to Saturday
Cost prix fixe only, $50
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, Diners Club