February 2005: A la Lucia

Good Neighborhood Italian Dining in Alexandria

For nearly two decades, patrons of the highly-rated Galileo identified the restaurant not only with chef/proprietor Roberto Donna but also with maitre d' Michael Nayeri. In 2003 Nayeri left Galileo to open his own place. The result is a restaurant that should be the envy of every neighborhood. It is a cozy, moderately priced Italian restaurant with a menu that changes daily. Neither Nayeri nor his customers seem to get enough of the place–it is open for dinner seven days a week and lunch Monday through Saturday.

A la Lucia (Lucia is Nayeri's wife) immediately puts customers face-to-face with a service counter and an enthusiastic Nayeri. The restaurant seats just 40 people, and lines form at unexpected times for the few booths and tables. By summer patrons will have a better shot at getting in. The restaurant will expand, adding a wine bar and a retail wine shop where dining customers can browse and sip while waiting to be seated.

The menu is short, with four or five antipasti, usually eight choices of soups and salads, pastas, and main courses. Prices are moderate–pastas start at $11, main courses at $15. Among the appetizers, the fried calamari, the mussels in tomato sauce, and the roasted peppers with olive oil, capers, black olives, and anchovies are very good. An unusual combination of small meatballs and soft polenta consisted of excellent meat but unexciting polenta, at least compared with the polenta served with veal stew as a main course. As for the fresh mozzarella and sliced tomatoes with basil, the mozzarella was good, but the tomatoes should probably be deferred until spring.

Hearty soups like lentil or bean soup and refreshing salads like endive and Gorgonzola with balsamic vinegar or arugula with Parmigiano are good alternatives to the listed antipasti.

Pastas have been consistently excellent–and always served al dente. Among the many successes have been the house-made manicotti with spinach and ricotta served with béchamel, mozzarella, and tomato sauce; rigatoni with sausage, peppers, and tomato sauce; pappardelle with veal ragu; and penne alla putanesca, with tomato, anchovies, black olives, and capers.

Main courses are built chiefly around chicken, duck, veal, lamb, and beef. Breast of chicken was very well prepared with mushrooms, mustard, and cream sauce with broccoli rabe. A grilled rack of veal with mushrooms and sage, by far the most expensive item on the menu at $26, was an excellent cut. A grilled rack of lamb with rosemary-and-garlic sauce served with artichokes and mashed potatoes was offered as three perfectly cooked double chops, a bargain at $21. Other good choices have been grilled breast of duck, osso buco, veal stew served with soft polenta, and veal scallopine with fresh mozzarella, sage, capers, and white wine.

Two or three fish dishes grace the menu. Grilled sea scallops with fried zucchini is good–the scallops are barely cooked through, and the zucchini is greaseless and crisp. Grilled salmon served with fresh tomatoes, pine nuts, and basil is another winner. Garnishes are conscientiously prepared and vary from dish to dish. Spinach and broccoli rabe are two good accompaniments.

The lunch menu has a few main courses, but this is a place to order one of the panini, those excellent grilled flat sandwiches, or pizzas.

Desserts are simple and traditional. The cannoli and crème caramel are fine, but the gelati and sorbetti are special. They are made to order for the restaurant by Moorenko's, a small producer in McLean.

The wine list is also special, consisting of about 100 items, all from Italy and California except for a couple Champagnes. Prices range from $18 to $350 (for a Masseto 2001 and a Krug Rosé Champagne). There are plenty of good choices in between, including Dolcetto d'Alba Monte Aribaldo Marchesi di Gresy 2002 for $28 and Barolo Renato Ratti Marcenasco '98 for $55. Four whites and four reds are available by the glass, starting at $6.50.

A la Lucia

Atmosphere: Cozy and comfortable.

Food: Excellent.

Service: Knowledgeable and friendly.

Price: Lunch main courses $5.50 to $12. Dinner main courses, $11 to $26 for dinner.

Value: Excellent.

Bottom line: A first-rate restaurant that primarily serves the neighborhood but is worth a drive.

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