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“I’ve got kind of a blazer thing going these days,” my friend explains as we approach the awning for Otello Osteria. My friend’s evolution as a dresser is hardly a surprise. A decade back, before he became my first ex–best friend and still played Beavis to my Butt-head, this tweed-wearing businessman was also Felix to my Oscar—a human barometer of suburban, adolescent hip, who managed to sport parachute pants and a new-wave haircut in the flash of time that they were considered cool. Standing next to me and my sorry version of semicasual dress, any observer would take Beavis for a grown-up. So it’s with a sense of pride that I tell him, “You look good.”
In the winter of 10th grade, Beavis got hit with a nasty case of maturity and became born again. Our friendship has been on the mend ever since. When he came to town for a night on business, he brought with him the impression that my lot in life was respectable. I took Beavis to Otello partly because it fit in my budget, but mostly because I wanted him to be impressed.
Otello caters to people with motives similar to mine. It’s less a restaurant that you would take a date to than a place where regulars bring nonregulars, or business colleagues who actually like each other will go to talk about anything besides business. “I already know that I want the spaghetti alla bolognese,” announces a woman at a table next to me during one visit. “Oh, that’s his favorite,” says her companion, gesturing with her eyes toward her silent husband.
When the waiter approaches Beavis and me to seat us, I’ve got my eyes on Otello’s back room—a sort of indoor patio with wood latticework on the ceiling, exposed brick on the walls, and at this moment, hardly any other customers. The waiter leads us to a table in the front, next to the bar, the door, and lots of traffic.
“Can we sit back there,” I ask, pointing over the waiter’s shoulder.
“How about right here,” he says, putting our menus down.
“It looks like more fun back there.”
“This is fine. No?” he says, walking away before I can answer.
Beavis believes in being polite. As a kid, he was a magician of manners, disguising from adults that such a nice 16-year-old would ever think of getting stoned or, for that matter, blow through red lights at 60 miles per hour with a beer between his legs. We take our seats and contemplate the wine list.
“Which of these would you recommend?” I ask our waiter, pointing out two different merlots on Otello’s healthy list of Italian wines.
“Fifty-eight or 59 you’ll like,” he says, referring to the numbers of a couple of chiantis.
“Um, you don’t like these merlots?” I ask.
“Fifty-eight or 59 you’ll like,” he repeats, slightly annoyed that a scrub like me might have a preference when it comes to wine. Didn’t he notice Beavis’ blazer?
Accepting the fact that we don’t have a choice in the matter, we go with No. 58 and dig into a bruschetta Capri, which is topped with a hunk of fresh mozzarella as thick as my thumb, and peperoni alla griglia, a mildly sweet plate of grilled peppers and two black olives. “More olives would have been nice,” Beavis demurs.
As it turns out, the chianti and our dinner are a delight. By the time the bottle is drained and our seafood linguini (packed with plenty of whole calamari, shrimp, and mussels cooked to perfection) and gnocchi della casa (dumplings stuffed with spicy ground beef and pork and bathed in Otello’s thick cream-and-cheese sauce) are pleasant memories, Beavis has revealed the details of a relationship that would make decent fodder for Geraldo. Glass No. 1: “We see each other a lot, but I never bring her around friends.” Glass No. 2: “The sex is great.” By glass No. 3, I’ve found out the mystery woman is a topless dancer who likes to trip on mushrooms. “Wow,” is all I can say as I sign the check and leave a better tip than our waiter deserves.
As I arrive at Otello for my second meal, I’m pleased to be greeted by a gracious face. “Your friends are in the back,” I’m told by a bubbly host who takes the idea of service seriously. Unfortunately, the host isn’t our waiter, and when we once again ask about the merlot, our server for some reason tries to dissuade us, before leaving to deal with other customers and making us wait 10 more minutes to order. “We’ve got to get the merlot,” I tell my friends. When we get our bottle, we enjoy it with a hint of defiance.
Respecting your elders is important, I know, but it was a little odd that we seemed to be more polite to our waiter than he was to us. “We’re the youngest people in here,” my companion notices, which might explain the reason that when we ask for explanations about the menu or request parmesan for our table, our server reacts as if we’re asking to borrow the car. Maybe we didn’t look like good tippers.
Despite the cold shoulder, we were enamored of Otello’s food. “Is dipping allowed?” asked a companion as he slopped his bread in the savory juice from our bowl of steamed mussels. The seafood linguini was better than I remembered from the night I came with Beavis. The petti di pollo ai peperoni (tender chicken sauteed with white wine and sweet peppers) yielded easily to the edge of a fork; and the crab-stuffed ravioli with lobster cream sauce was so filling my friend could hardly drink the post-dinner beer we had next door at Mr. Eagan’s.
When I came back to Otello for a final visit, I gave up my efforts to try to look respectable, knowing from experience that it wouldn’t do me any good. To my surprise, the same standoffish waiter from the night with Beavis greeted me with a “Good evening, friend,” and led me to the table in the back that I asked for. During my meal, I was treated like a senator; I even got a “God bless you” when I sneezed. Since I’d surmised that the help at Otello took appearances too seriously to ever mistake me for a critic, it seemed I’d been marked as a regular and was dealt with accordingly. But being the type to hold a grudge, when my waiter bonked his head on a chair as he bent over to pick up a napkin, I thought of Beavis and me pulling childish pranks on our high-school teachers. “Gee,” I said with a shit-eating grin. “That must have hurt.”
Otello Osteria, 1329 Connecticut Ave. NW. (202) 429-0209.
Mr. Ram, the proprietor of Madhu Ban in Arlington, would like to expand. “Yeah, but you need hundred thousand dollars,” he tells some patrons enjoying the $5.95 all-you-can-eat buffet ($4.75 during the week) at his meatless Indian restaurant. “I don’t have hundred thousand dollars.” He probably won’t have the loot anytime soon, and not because he doesn’t run a quality business. His food is a steal, and if you live in the area, delivery is free. One reader bragged of a “$13.75 tab for four appetizers, one entree, tea, soup, cucumber sauce, and dessert.” I recommend the saag makkai ki roti: two large, corn-flour breads, served with fresh mustard leaf and curry and the choice of a sweet, salty, or mango lassi.
Madhu Ban, 3217 N. Washington Blvd., Arlington. (703) 528-7184. CP