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It’s impossible to spend an entire meal at the new Etrusco without at least once commenting on chef Francesco Ricchi’s many virtues. But that’s not to say that Etrusco is an ego play on par with Galileo or Citronelle or any number of forward-looking restaurants run by chefs whose names are sometimes mentioned in the same breath as Ricchi’s. On the contrary, Etrusco is more of a diner-focused period piece, its menu skewed toward taking you places you’ve been as opposed to places you never realized existed. Which brings us back to the chef’s strong points: Risotto cooked not a breath shy of perfection. No-nonsense seafood. Bread baskets that tempt you to empty their contents into a tote bag and then cry out for a refill.
The quality informing all of Ricchi’s food often seems in short supply among chefs of his caliber: He’s respectful of cooking’s limits, at least in terms of the way innovation relates to quality. A Tuscany native whose family back home still runs his grandfather’s old trattoria, Ricchi’s never been big on razzle-dazzle; i Ricchi, the restaurant where the chef made his name locally, is a straight-up Tuscan affair rendered shabby-chic for downtown, and Cesco, the restaurant that’s been his showcase in recent years, offers similarly tradition-minded cuisine in Bethesda.
That said, Etrusco’s modesty is still striking at first blush. To be sure, it’s a lovely restaurant, and the dishes that are plain-spokenly detailed on the menu are all the better for their surroundings. The sub-basement space that was last occupied by Sostanza is one of Dupont’s jewels, a series of softly lit dining rooms highlighted by a long, narrow atrium decorated with plain green plants and shade-covered candles. Call it bland in a good way: Dine once in the elegantly simple room and you’ll see that it’s a blank slate waiting for color, which the food ably provides. One sip of his barbera, and my friend fondly reports that the wine “tastes like a campfire.”
Ditto the grilled radicchio or, for that matter, any of the various robustly crowned crostinis. Ricchi’s cuisine is of the type that helped usher words like “earthy” into the foodie lexicon, and Etrusco’s antipasti tend to elicit vague notions of some purely natural essence. Greens are sharp, pleasantly bitter, and barely dressed. Squid is grilled to a creamy tenderness; each piece is paired with a single shrimp that’s similarly fine. Ribollita, the classic, porridgelike, bread-thickened vegetable soup, pretty much defines hearty, although it’d be nothing without its Parmesan shower. The homemade sausage comes rustic and coarse, paired smartly with some herbed cannellini beans. I prefer my prosciutto a little more sheer, but wrapped around some of the accompanying fried bread—imagine beignets served as savory little logs—those thick slabs are hard to put down. A warm octopus salad is perhaps the best thing on the menu—the sections of meat occupy a blissful state between firm and soft, much like the accompanying potatoes, and the whole thing’s tossed with crisp green beans and olives in little more than a splash of oil.
Not every noodle dish reaffirms Ricchi’s established reputation as an ace pasta man. A few are simply marred by wetness: Exemplary meat sauce can’t save tortelli that emit nearly as much water as they do herbed potato stuffing, and a plate of cavatelli holds sundry pockets of oil and too many stringy artichokes. Still, the veal-and-mushroom-stuffed ravioli are juicy fun, and the pappardelle covered in duck sauce are so silkily divine that I’ve got a half a mind to tie one of the broad noodles to the end of a stick just so I can watch it undulate in the wind.
Etrusco’s secondi plates are so pristine that it’s a wonder none of them end up being dull. Grilled sea bass is seasoned with the same olive oil-lemon-oregano trifecta we encounter elsewhere on the menu; it’s all the fish needs. Grilled, breadcrumb-crusted tuna, paired with a familiar pile of greens, is ingeniously brightened with a sweet-basil-and-fennel coulis. The sausage comes snuggling polenta with a homespun wink on the side—a stuffed baked tomato. Osso buco is a hair dry but compelling nonetheless; the braising liquid is winey, even tart, and virtually tomato-free, and the marrow comes scooped from the bone and sits in melting chunks on top of the veal. Only the veal scaloppini brings us down. The meat’s chewy, the mashed potatoes are runny, and the gelatinous sauce elicits unwelcome memories of turkey gravy from Thanksgivings past.
Etrusco’s prices qualify it as a mid-range restaurant (the appetizers are all under $8, and the entrees average in the central teens), but when the front-of-the-house staff is on, the place feels fancier. One night’s initially indifferent service is redeemed by a waiter who actually remembers my wine choice from a week earlier, and all the gushy stuff that the staff says about pastry chef Scott Hager’s desserts turns out to be truthful. Zuccotto is a decadent vehicle for whipped cream, nuts, chocolate, and liqueur-soaked sponge cake (don’t try to eat it alone); the bread pudding is supple in its moat of heady Marsala cream. Best of all is the blood-orange sorbet: Cool, intense, and vivid as a heart on fire, it’s as good a proof as any that simple ingredients know no bounds.
Etrusco, 1606 20th St. NW, (202) 667-0047.
The first thing you need to know about Chipotle Mexican Grill—and the “best in town” burritos that one reader insists it serves—is that McDonald’s Corp. owns a chunk of the chain. So there is certainly a corporateness about the place. But even if the burritos aren’t nearly as good as the reader claims, I find them notable for not being all about girth. The pork in my 20-ouncer certainly could’ve benefited from some fresh-cooked heat, but the other fixings—whole pinto beans, green lettuce, searing tomatillo-and-red-chili salsa—could make for an awfully handsome salad. Too bad the good will burns away when I ask for chips: They’re not free. Chipotle Mexican Grill, 7600 Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda, (301) 907-9077.—Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.