June 2006 Cheap EatsYou can't miss Giovanni Diotaiuti. He's the smiling guy in the white chef's apron greeting customers and imbuing his cozy U Street trattoria with the same warmth he brought to Al Tiramisu in Dupont Circle.
The hands-on approach goes a long way. So do the gentle tabs. In an age of double-digit glasses of wine, Al Crostino has fashioned a list of imports where nothing tops $10. Tuscan-style rib-eye steak isn't going to make you forget the thick, charred slabs at Charlie Palmer Steak, but it's a generous portion of good, juicy meat, and the thin, crispy sliced potatoes it comes with are deserving of their own, separate dish. Vitello tonnato is exactly the sort of inelegant but lusty dish that more Italian restaurants would do well to include on their menus. This one shows why: It's a small plate that tastes big. The pastas are sometimes memorable (spinach ricotta in a Gorgonzola sauce), sometimes ordinary (mushroom ravioli with sage butter), but always evince a distinctly Italian reverence for simple, unfussy preparations and fresh, seasonal ingredients.
Specials often showcase hard-to-get or seasonal items by doing as little to them as possible; a recent plate of soft-shells in a light, lemon-butter sauce aimed to get out of the way of the delicacy of the meat. Given the prices, you might be glad for merely competent service, but in fact it's excellent--smart and solicitous.