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Some restaurants’ movieland fixations make more sense than others. At Planet Hollywood, for instance, it’s clear that the items on the menu, from the clothing to the “L.A. Lasagna” to the no-annual-fee credit-card offer, weren’t devised to be tasteful but to pimp the trash-cinema cause. The titular fetish at Fellini, a new Italian grill and nightclub, is suspect mainly because the restaurant hardly seems the type of place at which Federico would care to eat. It’s too bad, really, because the theme could inspire a grand restaurant flush with magnificence and wit. But Fellini never runs with its motif; there are movie posters on the wall and murals meant to depict famous scenes from the filmmaker’s work, but you could easily get in and out of the place figuring it was named after an owner’s uncle or something.
Not that Fellini lacks ambition. The restaurant’s co-proprietors, a former manager at Coco Loco and another at Primi Piatti, hope that Fellini will come alive at night, which explains the dance floor, the late weekend closing hours, and the fact that the music gets louder as the evening wears on. The neighborhood could use another nightspot, if not another cheesy one, but Fellini is in a difficult place. Hidden in the courtyard on the ground floor of an office building, it’s hard to see from the street. (Recent sidewalk construction has made this problem even worse.) Tables have not been hard to come by.
Fellini also purports to be the District’s first “Italian grill,” which, true or not, is a merely semantic distinction; Fellini is hardly the first Italian restaurant in town to grill food, although it may be the first to trumpet its grill skills in its name.
Judging from the appetizers, one would think that the kitchen staff is in fact at its best when working around the fire. Two items are exceptional. One is a grilled portobello painted with pesto, the other a plate of lightly charred vegetables splashed with olive oil. Both dishes are fairly plain compared with others, and that’s probably why they stand out. Often we’re left wondering if someone in the kitchen has a problem with spilling. There’s so much lemon dressing on the carpaccio it’s hard to tell if the thinly sliced objects underneath it are meat or not. Both the spinach and Caesar salads arrive with enough dressing to accommodate twice the amount of greens. The caponata siciliana, a mound of eggplant, onion, celery, olives, capers, and tomatoes, is mixed with a sweet-and-sour sauce that’s quite strong and not very good. An order of steamed mussels is mostly broth.
The kitchen is thankfully less prone to drowning the pasta. Noodles are made fresh daily (the waiters are quick to point out), and several of the pasta dishes are delicious. The tomato sauce covering some angel hair is mingled with garlic and a touch of white wine, which modify it just enough to suit the fleshy chunks of crabmeat. The spinach-and-ricotta-stuffed ravioli is borderline-perfect in a shallow pool of brown sage butter and parmigiana cheese, as is the seafood-stuffed variety, with its tangy champagne sauce. Other dishes are less endearing, such as the meat lasagna, which is dry, and a plate of penne with duck sausage and porcini mushrooms, which is hampered by an overly acidic tomato sauce.
In spite of what you’d expect of a restaurant selling itself as a grill, Fellini falters most when it comes to preparing meat and fish. When the seafood isn’t ruined in the cooking, as is the case with the red snapper and the swordfish, both of which have had their natural juices burned out of them, it’s marred after the fact. (If you order the salmon medallions, ask for half the oil.) The filet mignon comes covered in a peppercorn-and-wine reduction, and the pork fillet is accompanied by a bright raspberry sauce. Both look the way they should, steaming and dictionary-thick, but they’re also tough, leaving us actually wishing for more sauce.
While the place does little to celebrate Federico Fellini, and the food hardly seems to justify claims of grilling prowess, the staff at least does its bit to honor filmmaking sleaze. The waiters dress the part, but they haven’t bothered perfecting their lines. Asking anything specific about the food can be a riot. One guy tells us the stock used in the risotto is “mostly oil,” and another, instead of telling us to choose something else, serves us a frozen-solid piece of mixed-berry mousse cake and claims that that’s the way it’s supposed to be. One guy goes on at length about where his suits are tailored and then ignores us for the rest of the night except to stop by and belittle a busboy for doing his job. The suit gives us a little wink afterward.
Fellini, 1800 M St. NW. (202) 785-1177.
Being born on the bayou has its drawbacks. “I swear I miss home every time I eat out,” says Evan, a reader and New Orleans native who claims to be “crawfish crazy.” As a result, Ev doesn’t get out much except to stop at Louisiana Express, a restaurant notable for, as he puts it, not serving “shit Cajun to dickless shits.” More specifically, he likes the andouille served like a hot dog and garnished with lettuce and Creole relish, the “dirty rice” cooked with chicken livers and giblets, and the way his glasses steam a little when the jambalaya arrives. I’m partial to the fried oyster po’ boy, the catfish beignets, and the fact that guys like Evan endorse the place.
Louisiana Express Company, 4921 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda. (301) 652-6945.Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.