Rustico

In Alexandria, 250 bottles of beer on the wall.

By: Todd Kliman, Ann Limpert, Cynthia Hacinli

June 2006

The scarred wood floors shine like mirrors at Alexandria’s months-old Rustico, the latest restaurant from the group behind such Northern Virginia spots as Tallula in Clarendon and Vermilion in Old Town. Faux-aging aside, the place is not without personality, thanks to design quirks like glowing red lamps fashioned from Campari bottles and a cooks-gone-wild mosaic of smashed coffee cups, wine bottles, and bent silverware.

If wine is the preoccupation at Tallula, here the focus is on beer—30 on tap and 250 in bottles. You can get them in flights or assorted buckets; there are even beer cocktails, like a lightly sweet Blanche de Chambly with fragrant Framboise.

The food is a mixed bag. For all the menu’s Italianate sensibilities, chef Kevin Kearney’s talents come to the fore when he’s playing with American standards. Take his cobb salad, an elegant composition of duck confit, slices of green apple, and creamy St. Pete’s Select bleu cheese. Or a juicy burger made better with fried onions and Chimay cheese. At lunch, there’s a terrific roast-pork sandwich, layered with buttery baked apples and brie.

But the kitchen can be sloppy. An appetizer of asparagus fritto misto is overbattered and sodden. A spice-crusted roast chicken is set over a cornbread and caramelized-vegetable salad that would be lovely if weren’t pooled in oil. A cider-onion soup begged for seasoning.

Pizzas, fired in a wood oven, are hit (spicy sausage with sweet red peppers; roasted mushrooms with spinach and goat cheese) or miss (spinach with pinenuts and lemon ricotta).

Which goes to show: You can faux-age a brick wall, but a kitchen needs time to mature.

Rustico, 827 Slaters Ln., Alexandria; 703-224;5051;  rusticorestaurant.com.

Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and daily for dinner.