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The patio in front of Luciano Bistro is noticeable because it’s emptyempty that is, compared to the rest of Adams Morgan. It’s the first temperate weekend night of the season, and the mass of suddenly jacketless bodies moves like liquid over the sidewalk off 18th. We figure that a chair at Luciano’s is as good a seat on the proceedings as any, so we settle in for cocktails, not food, seeing as it’s 11 o’clock. But with the second round, our waiter brings out some menus anyway.
“Everything we have is good,” he insists without prompting, and retreats to obtain a basket of bread, perhaps to help prove his point. The waiter, a thin, gray-haired man with yellow-tinted glasses and an accent we assume to be Italian, returns with a basket trailing vapor, steam rising off a hot, dense loaf of crusty bread that’s been cut into six disproportionately large pieces.
We appreciate the bread even as it suckers us in, spurring us to place an order so we have a reason to summon a second basket for dipping purposes. Our waiter-proprietor Luciano says that the wedding-night soup is one of the only constants on a menu that changes fairly often. Its omnipresence is well-deserved: The soup and its curry broth, cheese-filled tortellini, and firm, fully seasoned meatballs are still the topic of our table’s conversation an hour after the bowl has vanished. The crab-cake appetizer is similarly riveting, not so much for the crab, which is fine, but because what the menu calls tartar sauce is actually a sublime, smooth-running, and yes, tart, accompanimentnothing like what you buy in a jar. By the time we finish our main coursean arrogantly rich carbonara and a relatively subdued plate of spaghetti with sausage and pepperswe take into account the $45 tab (that’s for three people with drinks and tip) and decide the place qualifies as a find.
Not that Luciano Bistro is completely unknown. The restaurant, which has been around for over a year, inhabits a space on one of the District’s busiest dining streets, but it keeps a low profile. The Bistro is small (more than 10 diners on the patio and comfort becomes an issue) and decorated on the cheap: Christmas lights glisten in the restaurant’s rear, a somewhat sloppy mural of a beach colors the wall in the entrance/bar area, and the awning over the bathroom, according to Luciano, was salvaged from someone else’s garbage pile. By Felix or Cities standards, the Bistro’s business is incredibly slow, which, frankly, adds to the charm. Seats outside are generally easy to come by, and without the distracting hubbub of a hot spot, the street comes alive. While I wait for friends one night, I’m serenaded by a street singer who turns “Love Is All Around” into an exalted aria. Another time I notice a motorcyclist drive by; his feline riding partner is wearing a kitty-size helmet to match his own.
The Bistro’s menu is modest but creative, and everything is reasonable in the extreme. There’s only one appetizer priced higher than $4, and the average entree is $7.50. Heart-of-palm slices make the Caesar taste like something new, and the croutons in both the shrimp-white bean and the tomato-mozzarella bruschettas are crunchy, audible wonders. Garlic is about all you can taste in the escargot, served with mushrooms and butter, which suits us just fine. Look on the handwritten specials sheet for extra polenta dishes. The kitchen serves the polenta thin so as not to overwhelm what’s lavished upon ita viscous gorgonzola sauce one time, a spare coupling of mozzarella and marinara another.
The wait staff at Luciano is comprised of twoLuciano and another guy who looks as though he could be a cousin but who I later find out is just a buddy. Luciano also spends a lot of time in the kitchen, making him an authority on the food, though he’s not one to dole out advice when it comes time to order. He’s friendly and attentive, but not very expressive; when I ask him to recommend a dish, he refuses, arguing that he can’t bear to favor one of his culinary children over another. Luciano is not exactly Tony Shalhoub in Big Night, but his purity and righteousness are enough for a friend and me to decide he’s in it for the food.
But despite the proprietor’s claim of top-to-bottom excellence, there are good and bad ways to go at Luciano’s. Luciano is right on the danaro when he calls the snow-crab ravioli an “excellent choice”; for one thing, it looks nice, with fresh cuts of asparagus floating lazily in the tomato cream sauce, and the pillow-shaped noodles are plump with meat. Traditional items like the meat lasagna, fettuccine alfredo with chicken, linguini in clam sauce, and capellini with tomato and basil are unremarkable only because they’re so familiarbut that’s exactly the effect I’m wanting when I order each. The rabbit, fragrant with garlic and white wine sauce, on the other hand, or the cheese ravioli with rich spinach cream sauce and sun-dried tomatoes, reveal Luciano to be at his best when he forgoes tradition.
We came across some duds on one visit. My penne with olives, capers, and tuna is a dream on paper, yet in reality the penne is not penne, the capers are nowhere to be seen, and the fish is canned; we also suspect that the salmon in tomato cream sauce is less “fresh” than the menu claims. The gnocchi with pesto is unforgivably boring.
But instead of fleeing the scene after the meal, we decide to stay for a long while after our plates are cleared. It’s Monday, and by 10:30 we’ve been the last people in the Bistro for close to an hour. Neither of the waiters tries to suggest we leave or even push us to order coffee; they just keep refilling our water glasses and let us be. On our way out, Luciano is behind the bar, standing with one leg on the floor and the other resting on something high enough off the ground so that he can rest his arm on a knee. He looks very much in command of things, and he mentions that he’s glad we stopped in. I ask him then if he is in fact Luciano, and he says yes. It’s the first time I’ve seen him smile. He clearly knows he runs a good show, even if he has the joint to himself on occasion.
Luciano Bistro, 2443 18th St. NW. (202) 667-5512.
The question as to whether there’s a decent place to eat in Mount Pleasant is rarely broached because I figure most people take for granted that the answer is no. A reader born in Texas wrote that the Trolley Stop Cafe is where she goes when she wants to be reminded of home, raving about the sour perfection of the margaritas but saying nothing of the food. I haven’t been to the Trolley since the time I went there over a year ago and a staffer was checking for weapons at the door. I’d have to agree with the reader about the margaritas, and add that the chicken enchiladas are as good as any I’ve had elsewhere. My only complaint is that when the time comes to settle my check I have to search the street outside to find someone to pay.
Trolley Stop Cafe, 3203 Mount Pleasant St. NW. (202) 667-7372.Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.