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One senses that Il Teatro has an inferiority complex. It’s one of those restaurants that produces sexy-looking Italian creations that, despite occasionally being flawless, will never earn it exceptionally high praise. Restaurants of its ilk are ambitious, expensive, and slightly Euro-trashyGeorgetown is full of them. Like a trendy nightclub, Il Teatro veils its self-consciousness with snobbery and aspires to be the place of the moment. When we inquire about the theatrical theme (does it refer to the Key? To productions in the basement of a nearby church?), our waiter has trouble understanding how we could be so far out of the loop. “You haven’t been inside yet?” he asks.
The inside of Il Teatro is easy to neglect, but not because it’s unappealing. The angular structure the restaurant took over almost two months ago has always been an alluring curio. During lunch (the menu’s the same all day), the dining room is filled with patches of daylight that filter through the tree cover outside. The cluster of masks above the bar, the curtain hanging above the entrance, and the framed theater posters are meant to evoke a stage setting, but the building is too much itself for that. From the outside, the distinctive modern structure looks as if it were cut from a pile of bricks, outfitted with windows, and dropped in from above to fit perfectly into its site.
And outside is the place to be at Il Teatro. The restaurant is located only a store’s length off a congested strip of Wisconsin Avenue, but when you’re sitting on Il Teatro’s patio you can hardly tell. It’s one of the few truly bucolic settings in the heart of Georgetown. Chirping birds mask most of the car noise. In fact, the bird population is such that twice I witness shitting incidents (I’m the victim one time; on my next visit, it’s a guy a few tables away). I suggest avoiding the tables shaded by trees.
Dismiss it as a coincidence if you want, but each time, the droppings come early in the meal; I can’t help thinking that the birds are voicing their opinions of the appetizers. Two of them are disasters. The fried wild mushrooms are actually fried, not sautéed, and the greasy batter coating makes it debatable whether the mushrooms hidden inside are wild, or, for that matter, mushrooms. When we order the shrimp with pink lobster sauce, we’re expecting something creamy and rich with the flavors of shellfish. It’s rich all right, but cream is all we taste, and the shrimp are so overcooked they don’t hold their shape. With tax and a bad tip, the dish costs 10 bucks.
What makes these debacles humorous is that Il Teatro’s staff takes it for granted that we settle for nothing less than “the finest.” When I ask for a glass of water, I’m brought a bottle of San Pellegrino. When we order wine, the waiter goes out on a limb to recommend a $60 bottle of merlot, calling it “excellent.” It’s to be expected, then, that Il Teatro would use nothing less than top-shelf ingredients, and in the case of the salads and the cold starters, that’s exactly what we get.
I contend that good virgin olive oil complements pretty much anything, and the folks at Il Teatro agree. Before any orders are taken, a waiter comes around to pour everyone a plateful of olive oil to go with the basket of bread. Various strains of oil are displayed like trophies around the restaurant’s wood-burning stove.
Il Teatro’s raw vegetables are worthy of the oil’s fine gloss. A salad of fennel, arugula, endive, and parmesan is wisely left virtually unadorned; as on a similarly lovely plate of white beans, shrimp, and asparagus, a splash of olive oil and a squirt of lemon serves as the dressing. No one has thought of a better way to eat choice prosciutto or fresh, young mozzarella than with a simple piece of bread, so here the two are served together with just a few breadsticks to cut the salt. Smoked salmon is rolled around avocado, piquant goat cheese, and some fresh cilantro. It’s enough to make us wish we’d splurged on that wine.
The excitement doesn’t last long. Il Teatro is reminiscent of many pricey new-Italian restaurants in that its motive for serving such cuisine seems to be that the food might match the decor. The entrees are passionless and prosaicas if they were shipped in from some culinary arm of Banana Republic. The fine ingredients are wasted on the pizzas. The prosciutto only overwhelms the pizza it’s on. The one with tomato, avocado, chicken, and cilantro has a great color scheme, sure, but it tastes horrible. And if you think that sounds bad, try the one with asparagus, mascarpone, and sliced beef.
Conversely, the pastas are so timid it’s as if they aren’t even there. There are certainly instances when less equals more, but usually not when the goal is to enliven big bowls of noodles. The menu is stating fact when it calls the sauces “light.” The chicken and spinach rigatoni is hopelessly bland, and it gets no help from its cream sauce. The artichoke, shrimp, and tomatoes in one dish almost beg to be part of an actual recipe, which they aren’t; it’s just a plate of pasta with stuff in it. And isn’t there any garlic in the kitchen? Even the rapini and Italian sausage tastes as if it were made for someone on a blandness diet.
The frustration compounds because it’s clear that Il Teatro knows how to dazzle. The baked salmon is bold and inventive in all the right ways, swimming in saffron broth and topped with wild mushrooms and lightly steamed asparagus. The baked halibut with black olives, sun-dried tomatoes, and artichokes could be from any number of fine Italian restaurants I’d gladly go broke eating at. But that puts the grand total of entrees we actually like at two. No wonder I detect some self-consciousness.
Il Teatro, 3206 N Street NW. (202) 337-1275.
Although the restaurant serves some of the best corn bread I’ve ever dipped in butter, breakfast at the Florida Avenue Grill has always been more about chitchat and neighborhood camaraderie than actual food. So when a colleague and then two readers recommend that I try the Grill’s Sunday brunch, I figure I’ve never heard of such a thing because I don’t live in the neighborhood. It turns out that I’m less out of touch than I thought. “Have you ever had a Sunday brunch?” I ask the waitress who has just served me some stewed chicken and dumplings. “I don’t think so,” she says. To make sure, she screams across the restaurant. “Yo! Mr. Ed! We ever been open on Sundays?” Mr. Ed says no. Stop in on any other day.
Florida Avenue Grill, 1100 Florida Ave. NW. (202) 265-1568.Brett Anderson
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