Tutto Bene Italian Restaurant & Grill

February 2004

Tutto Bene in Arlington is an aptly named neighborhood Italian restaurant. But it provides diners with more than just food. Several times a month the restaurant puts on live musicales, including concert opera with professional singers, as well as less elaborate presentations. Call the restaurant or check its Web site––for a schedule. Saturday and Sunday lunch offers, along with the regular Italian menu, an extra menu of Bolivian specialties, which draws a satisfied South American crowd. For this treat, a Latino singer/guitar player enhances the atmosphere. This family-run restaurant strives to please its customers.

The setting is more elegant than the exterior suggests. Two large dining rooms–there are smaller ones for private parties–mean that customers seldom have to wait for tables. The decor includes murals of popular Italian treasures. The rear room boasts a grand piano and mahogany bar. White tablecloths in the evening and cloth napkins at lunch and dinner are an indication of the proprietors' concern for comfort.

Good choices to begin a family-style Italian meal are mussels in red sauce; lightly breaded fritto misto of calamari and artichokes; and traditional clams casino. Many of the appetizers–but not the main courses–are available in half portions. Shiitake mushrooms, served room temperature, were adequate but overpriced at $7.95 for a modest portion. The mixed-green salad with balsamic vinaigrette that comes with lunch is merely okay.

Pastas are a good idea, whether ordered as a main course or shared as a first course for two. The kitchen complied with a request that the pastas be cooked al dente. Linguine with white sauce and a dozen littleneck clams and spaghetti with meat sauce were appropriately firm. When no request was made, an order of gnocchi alla Bolognese was overcooked. Other good pasta choices have been the lasagna and the cheese ravioli. The risotto of the day was loaded with good seafood, but it would have been better without the excess liquid.

Pizza is an important part of the kitchen's repertory. Most people order the individual size, but a 14-inch pie is available, too. Baked in a wood-burning oven, pizzas are well done, the chewy thin crust slathered with tomato and cheese and topped with generous portions of vegetables and meat of the diner's choice. Consider sharing a small one in lieu of a pasta course.

The main courses are varied and good. Veal scallopine is a reasonable $17.95 for a substantial portion. Chicken preparations are limited to three types of thickly sliced breast, but they carry more flavor than usual. Coarsely ground Italian sausage is a good choice, sautéed with green peppers or grilled. The grilled version comes solo or on a combination platter with beef tenderloin and chicken. Two seafood dishes were winners: a large, nicely cooked Chilean sea bass and an unusual preparation of slices of monkfish with grilled onions and tomatoes.

The weekend Bolivian lunch is not a fancy treat. The food is robust and good, served in a convivial atmosphere with musical accompaniment. Most diners start with saltenas, a kissing cousin to the empanada, only $2.12 for a large turnover stuffed with diced potatoes, vegetables, a few raisins, and a hint of curry. Most main courses fall into one of two categories–either a stew of meat, potatoes (sometimes French fries), vegetables, and broth, or a pounded, floured, and fried plate-size slice of beef. Sillpancho comes with a pair of fried eggs, fried potatoes, and plenty of rice, all for $10. The menu is in Spanish, and the staff will translate.

The weekday luncheon buffet is $8.95. Typical offerings include pizza, four pastas, and two other courses. The three thick pastas, including lasagna and cheese ravioli, held up well on the steam table. The thin spaghetti didn't. Mussels in white-wine sauce were well flavored but some were dried out. The sautéed calamari was good.

The wines are more than adequate, with a broad range of mostly Italian bottles. The wine list does not include vintages and servers cannot recite them, which confuses the process of ordering. Desserts are the standard fare of Italian eateries–tortoni, cannoli, tiramisu, and crème caramel. The cappuccino-ice-cream pie was the best finale sampled. The espresso is first-rate.