Graze on Italian wine, cheese, and charcuterie.

From September 2005

Dino brings a bit of la dolce vita–and seven kinds of crostini–to DC's Cleveland Park

Interesting restaurants often result from the vision and passion of a single person or couple. Dino, which opened in July in the Cleveland Park location once occupied by Yanyu, is such a place. Dean Gold and his wife, Kay Zimmerman, frequently traveled to Italy over a decade, mostly to Venice and to Montalcino in southern Tuscany. They wanted to open a restaurant incorporating the things they loved about Italian trattorias and osterias.

The result is a casual restaurant that's doing lots of things right. Prices are moderate. The chef is Johnny Nielsen, who has worked in kitchens ranging from Palena in DC to the Tribeca Grill in New York. The menu is organized so diners can order several small dishes or a meal structured the traditional Italian way. People are welcome, Gold says, to come in for a snack and a glass of wine for dinner.

To encourage patrons to see wine as part of the meal, Gold has priced a list of readily available wines at just $10 over retail. There's also a list of 120 wines under $60 and a reserve list of 250 or so more-expensive bottles. The bar features a selection of artisan-made spirits, aperitifs, and digestifs. Cheeses, cured meats, and olive oils are imported directly from Italy. Gold circles the handsome dining rooms, welcoming customers and urging them to try the cheeses he just got in. In its early weeks, Dino has been wildly successful. Its two dining rooms have been packed, and there's usually been a wait for a table.

The menu begins with an appealing selection of crostini, various toppings on crisp toasted bread. Offerings include an unusual combination of bleu cheese and anchovies, chicken pâté, dried cod whipped with oil, and bread rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil. Most are priced at $1.75 each or $8 for a plate with five crostini of your choice.

Next on the menu are cicchetti, a selection of more substantial dishes patterned after those served in Venetian wine bars. Examples include little meatballs braised in tomato sauce, marinated sardines with onions and raisins, and baby octopus braised in red wine, then grilled. These are followed by antipasti, yet more small plates, which include a delicious grilled quail and greens, an assortment of roast vegetables, and fried calamari with warm tomato sauce.

There's more. Primi, first courses, are available in half or whole orders. These include mussels and clams cooked in white wine and garlic and served on grilled bread; a thick pasta with a sauce of wild boar with herbs; and best of all, a small lasagna with a ragu of pork and veal. If main courses are still appealing after the wealth of starters, the best choice is branzino, a roasted whole sea bass with oil and lemon. Lamb cooked on the rotisserie was overcooked and dry, as was a half chicken.

Desserts are not the high point of an Italian meal, and that's the case here. The best is a delightful variation on tiramisu made with limoncello. Ricotta mousse was grainy, and chocolate panna cotta had little chocolate flavor. Most satisfying would be one of the sweet wines offered at a reasonable $6 a glass, a Moscato d'Asti or the Quady Elysium or Essencia.

Service, over several visits, has varied from forgetful to pleasantly attentive, but if the attention that Dean Gold has paid to other details of his restaurant is any indication, I'll wager that it will get better. Dinner at Dino is not a perfect dining experience, but it's an enjoyable one.