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Executive chef Daniele Catalani should take a vacation, back home for a week in Pistoia, Italy. He could take along his restaurant staff, and take them all to Mamma’s house (or better, Nonna’s) for dinner. Why? Well, his front-of-the-house staff could benefit from the education, his kitchen from a refresher on the Tuscan cuisine that inspires and informs Catalani’s food. The chef himself could use that time to build up his energy so that he might push everyone to routinely achieve the heights that his restaurant, Extra Virgin, currently reaches only sporadically.
When Extra Virgin hits its mark, the results are astonishingly good. A recent evening special of venison is a case in point: Tender chops arrived atop a large, herbed, roasted-shallot-and-shredded-potato cake that fell somewhere between hash browns and Bubbe’s latke, accompanied by a pumpkin flan and sautéed spinach. The dish was beautifully presented, with a floral garnish in the flan and dark-red pomegranate seeds scattered over the plate. The meat itself, covered in crushed pine nuts, arrived perfectly medium-rare. Its mineral tang, the soft richness of the potato cake, the pomegranate, and the lightly sweet sauce combined and recombined to keep palate fatigue at bay. If every dish were like this one, Catalani, a former executive chef at Galileo, and his new chef, Niko Amroune, could declare every bit of Extra Virgin’s potential fulfilled.
And there is potential: Catalani’s modern, moderately priced restaurant fairly drips with promise. The dining room is visually lush, all fluid lines. The waterfall fountain in front with its stylized olive logo, the floor-to-ceiling curtains in muted translucent hues, the curving bar and frosted-glass divider all work to produce a comfortable, cosmopolitan look. With abstract paintings set off by more long curtains and banquettes upholstered in multihued streaming patterns, the décor is visually busy but doesn’t rise to the level of distraction, helped in part by the austerity of the dark-framed pale-wood tables (no cloths to stain when you’re pouring the fragrant olive oil for your bread). Unobtrusive live music creates a pleasant ambiance in the evening Wednesday through Saturday.
Unfortunately, the high expectations all these elements create tend to make failings stand out. The kitchen’s performance is often eccentric. A stuffed chicken breast with a tasty filling of chopped greens, mushrooms, and onion is served with both a bright-tasting chickpea-and-tomato ragu and a brown gravy—and is still lacking in moisture. A “spicy” Mediterranean seafood stew, crammed with perfectly done shellfish, shrimp, and squid, seems utterly devoid of seasoning. An appetizer of three types of sausage has two thumb-sized pieces of each, each pair perched on a little potato purée. Two are winners—the chicken and the lamb—but the duck is unacceptably mealy and, oddly, dry. The bread basket, which one day brought an exemplary rosemary focaccia, delivered on another visit a simple white loaf with a wet interior that could best be described as “gluey.”
In addition, the staff, while well-intentioned, is sometimes lacking in knowledge. The waiter who brought me a very good cheese plate for dessert one night could not identify a single cheese of the four, including the most obvious one, a deliciously salty pecorino pepato. He then went to the kitchen and brought back a fellow who could recite the names of the cheeses but seemed unsure as to which was which.
But to focus on these failings is to do Extra Virgin a disservice, when there are plenty of dishes that the kitchen does just right. An appetizer special—Catalani really shines in the specials—of marinated sardines offered meaty fillets, sharp with a vinegary marinade to wake the tongue. A cannellini-bean soup is creamy, hearty, and satisfying, even more so when given a splash of the green, peppery olive oil from the bottle on the table.
Pasta is terrific and comes in very large portions. (For vegetarians, pastas will be your best bet for satisfaction—the entree list is headed Carne e pesce.) The house-made spaghetti with tomato and fresh pork meatballs, a bargain at $11, has a beautiful ripe-tomato flavor and light and succulent meatballs, with ribbons of fresh-cut basil in the sauce. The ravioli filled with beef cheeks are rich and yielding, their butter-and-sage sauce so lush that it easily stands up to an assertive young red wine from the large wine list, which offers a number of choices by the glass.
Desserts do not disappoint. A chocolate-mousse timbale in caramel and chocolate sauces is as rich as you would hope, but it’s a pear-based dish that stands out. A showy presentation coupled with knockout flavors, una pera in tre gusti features a flaky pear-and-cream tart in grappa sauce, a whole spiced pear in chocolate sauce, and a small scoop of pear sorbet, all presented on a long, narrow platter. The whole pear comes standing up in the center, flanked by the tart and sorbet. A bit firmer than stewed apple—and a bit tough to tackle with a spoon—it proves an ideal contrast to the dark-chocolate sauce that sheaths it.
Extra Virgin’s real challenge is of its own making: Its finest dishes are so good that even the sound performers suffer by comparison. If Catalani and Amroune can bring the daily menu from solid sufficiency to the remarkable level of the specials, then Extra Virgin will be a sure bet. Until then, it offers a low-risk game of roulette—a satisfying meal at worst, an excellent one when you’re lucky.
Extra Virgin, 4053 S. 28th St., Arlington, (703) 998-8474.—Brent Garland
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.