Palena co-owners Ann Amernick and Frank Ruta. Photograph by Matthew Worden.
Palena, Frank Ruta’s very personal, eclectic Italian eatery in Northwest DC has been added to the Mobil Travel Guide’s roster of four-star restaurants for the first time — the 2007 list was released today in New York. Other area eateries already on the list of four-star places are CityZen and Citronelle in DC, and Maestro in Tysons Corner. The region only has one five-star restaurant, the Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia. Gerard’s Place in DC, a longtime holder of four stars, only got three stars this year-- not a surprise since chef Gerard Pangaud left recently to head L’Academie d’Cuisine in Bethesda. The prized four- and five-star ratings are hard to come by — there are only 145 four-star and 16 five-star restaurants in the country. So what do the uber-critics at the Mobil Travel Guide look for when they dine incognito? How quickly they’re greeted — within 60 seconds is the ideal. How conversant the staff is with dishes on the menu. How much eye contact is made. How well the staff anticipates a diner’s needs (those water and wine glasses, for instance, shouldn’t be empty for more than 30 seconds). And finally, how a restaurant handles mishaps, complaints, and catastrophes. Mobil Travel Guide vice president Shane O’Flaherty says in sticky situations “how a place overcomes a problem” is important. He tells the tale of the inspector who had a large painting fall on him while dining. The staff was so solicitous he didn’t bat an eyelash and kept eating — and he didn’t take away any stars.