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It doesn’t matter if the kitchen seems more intent on waging war on your figure than challenging your palette, or if the decor is only slightly more chic than that of the corner barbershop. Everyone knows that dining in a neighborhood Italian restaurant can be romantic. When family history, garlic, and perhaps a rumored mob allegiance conspire with candlelight and wine, even dinner with Mr. or Ms. Wrong can turn downright pornographic.
“Have you checked out the art in here?” asks my companion, as we take our seats in Listrani’s—underneath some gnome figurines. Listrani’s is a neighborhood place, all right, located in proudly quaint Palisades, but inside it reminds us of a Shakey’s: Its walls are decked out with framed posters of pink flamingos, a picture of neon-colored babies frolicking in a playpen, and an immense stained-glass depiction of a woman that looks to be inspired by the cover of Duran Duran’s Rio. It’s an awkward place to engage in romance; when my date tries to sneak me a kiss on our first visit, she succeeds only in grazing my lips and spilling our wine and water on the floor. Any self-respecting Mafioso wouldn’t be caught dead in Listrani’s.
Sexy wouldn’t be the appropriate vibe for a restaurant so popular with families (expect to wait for a table on Tuesdays; it’s half-price pizza night), though the food can be seductive. My date and I linger over a plate of shiitake, portobello, and champignon mushrooms, dipping our fingers in the mixture of olive oil, white wine, garlic, and parsley they’re sauteed in. The marinated seafood appetizer—calamari, scallops, and shrimp served cold with a lemon wedge and a kalamata olive—is a rubbery but alluring delicacy. The two types of bruschetta—one topped with fresh tomatoes, one with herbed cannellini beans, and both with an absurd amount of garlic—are excellent. Forget about the Caesar salads. Twice ours come untossed, and the buttery croutons are hardly the attraction our waiter makes them out to be. All meals are preceded by a warm roll and a square of basil-flecked foccacia. Ask for olive oil.
Given the crowd Listrani’s attracts—from toothless kids to wizened grandparents, with a good selection of folks in between—serving up hearty portions of Italian archetypes would seem to be a matter of neighborhood law. Only slight hints of bechamel, spinach pasta, and meat sauce can be detected in the lasagna; its overwhelming profusion of cheeses is the stuff of a Wisconsin farmer’s dreams. Linguini is served three ways—with Bolognese sauce, ample meatballs, or—our favorite—a mixture of spicy sausage, peppers, and onions—in bowls as big as your head. The fettuccine carbonara is another cardiologist’s nightmare that we have no problem finishing, if only for the applewood-smoked bacon that cuts through an already decadently rich cream sauce.
Listrani’s is at its best, however, when you steer clear of the usual. I doubt citrus and sausage ever mingle as well as they do on Listrani’s pasta with lemon chicken sausage, which is accented with a hint of tarragon. The mushroom appetizer is reprised to great effect over ribbon-shaped pasta in the pappardelle del bosco. Of the lighter entrees, the grilled tuna, splashed in lemon and served with polenta, crisp veggies, and a salsa verde that could double as pesto, is a standout.
Admittedly, pasta lust doesn’t top the list of desires we hope to satisfy at Listrani’s. After our attempt at romance earns us nothing but wine-filled shoes and a smart remark from the woman sitting next to us, we settle for the next best thing and order pizza. Listrani’s menu boasts a “Best in Washington” award for its pies, and there’s a rumor circulating that the White House orders the stuff for takeout. (Listrani’s free delivery range encompasses a good portion of NW Washington and some Virginia and Maryland suburbs.)
Our cravings for pizza are great. It isn’t the delicious-but-pretentious wood-burning stove variety we desire, but what the couch potato craves when he’s feeling a little gourmandesque. Sadly, Listrani’s pizzas are bland, monotonous concoctions comprised of doughy crust, scant cheese, and irrelevant sauce. The thick-cut pepperoni is worth mentioning, but the round slabs it adorns are so lackluster I wonder how anyone, not to mention the president—a practicing glutton—could consider them more than satisfactory. It’s enough to make me reiterate a question I often hear in hunger-related conversations, albeit when Vace is ruled out as an option: Does great traditional pizza exist in D.C.?
Listrani’s Italian Gourmet & Pizzeria, 5100 MacArthur Boulevard NW. (202) 363-0620.
Building a sandwich at Dupont Market can be like trying to match plaids. If I get the black-olive-and-thyme bread, will onions be too much? What about hot-pepper cheese? Will it clash with the mustard? I decide to go for broke: barley-and-basil bread, turkey pastrami, lettuce, mustard, mayo, and—what the hell, I’m not driving—hot-pepper cheese. My memories of the sandwich are cloudy, similar to the ones I have of shots that taste great going down but make you stupid for days. My daring is awarded with dessert: A free slice of watermelon.
Dupont Market at Dupont Circle, 1807 18th St. NW. (202) 797-0222.—Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.