June 2006 Cheap Eats
It's the kind of place you may have presumed no longer existed, especially in a city lacking a Little Italy--a big-hearted restaurant with charm to spare and simple cooking that minds the details.
The setting is an old townhouse in Old Town Alexandria adorned with lace curtains, a fireplace, and old opera posters. Chef Franco Abbruzzetti is the owner, and he's got the old-time restaurateur's knack for making everyone who walks through the door feel like a big shot--among the memorabilia lining the entryway is a note from Pope John Paul II teasing his "good friend" for his sins and a picture of Abbruzzetti sitting down with Lorena Bobbitt. Regulars drop by to sit at the bar and order "the same thing I had yesterday."
Thoughtful touches abound, from the fresh-cut roses on the table to the ground basil at the bottom of the dish of olive oil that accompanies the bread basket to the Chianti poured from a bottle bound in a straw basket to the strongly made cappuccino and espressos.
In an age when Italian cooking has made micro-regionality its muse, the menu with its procession of cannellonis and tortellinis and piccatas feels reassuringly familiar. No one will be left scratching his head at either the ingredients or the modes of preparation--Abbruzzetti trades on execution, not novelty. Bruschetta holds no surprises, unless you count the fact that the thick, garlicky toasts spilling over with roughly diced tomatoes and onions are surprisingly addictive. A stirring of egg and a toss of fresh spinach transforms a delicate chicken broth into a delicious soup.
All the pastas are house-made, and all benefit from being cooked perfectly. Linguine carbonara is not the creamy, gooey lump of so many inferior versions; this one's bound only by Parmesan and egg and is studded with bits of smoky rendered bacon. Linguine alla vongole is graced by a scattering of fresh, sweet clams. There are also a handful of veal dishes, all simply sauced, all of them tasty.
Given the bargains to be found elsewhere on the menu, dessert is oddly expensive at $7 per sweet and, at those prices, not rewarding. But for those of a certain age, it might be hard to resist the tug of nostalgia and indulge in the likes of spumoni, cannoli, and tartuffo.