Geoff Tracy aims high at his Mediterranean eatery.

It’s telling that the burger with creamy Gorgonzola and buttery sauteed mushrooms is one of the star performers at the new Lia’s in Chevy Chase. Loosely packed and meaty, it more than satisfies without resorting to gimmicks like Wagyu, foie gras, or chorizo. A bargain at $9.95, the burger, which comes with thin, crisp fries, is almost a giveaway at the bar on Mondays and Wednesdays when it goes for $5—and when a cold, crisp Moretti is just $3.95.

But chef/owner Geoff Tracy is aiming much higher with his third restaurant. The space is more modern and more dramatic than at his Chef Geoff’s eateries. Still, it would benefit from softer lighting and a little noise reduction. Regulars gravitate past the gas fireplace to the cozier, conversation-friendly bar, or, in warm weather, a table on the large patio where a whooshing fountain soothes grown-ups and entertains the kids.

The menu is a cursory tour through regional Italian cooking—pizzas, pastas, sandwiches, and salumi-and-cheese platters. And though much of the food is just fine, few plates surprise or wow—Chef Geoff’s gone Med.

One exception is a rosy veal chop accented with truffle oil and a tart-sweet balsamic reduction. Another is a heap of crunchy, crumb-coated calamari atop a Caesar salad mellowed by roasted garlic that mates well with a glass of Tamellini Soave 2003, one of the notable by-the-glass picks on the mostly Italian list. And don’t miss the crisp little risotto balls oozing fontina, a tour de force of frying.

Focus on cheese plates, laden with a tangy brielike pecorino brinata and a milky house-made mozzarella—the salumi, or cured meats, are too thickly sliced and oddly flavorless. Or nibble on one of a half dozen thin-crusted pizzas. Though no match for the crispy, blistered pies at 2 Amys down the road, they’re pleasant enough with toppers like pepperoni and arugula or olives, mozzarella, and Genoa salami.

One easy-to-remedy problem is what appears to be a love/hate relationship with salt and pepper. Too much salt on the arugula salad. Too little on the lobster trofie. A sneeze-inducing amount of pepper on a pizza.

Desserts are more ambitious than might be expected. House-made gelatos and sorbets impress with their delicacy, and give gravitas to the best sweets: a Ligurian lemon cake pumped up with lemon gelato and a dark, molten chocolate-hazelnut confection paired with espresso gelato.

Lia’s isn’t likely to win fans from far and wide, but it has its charms: a menu with something for everyone, a whisper of artisanal ambition, a captivating beer-and-wine list, and a neighborly generosity with drink and food specials. No wonder it’s been packed every night since it opened.

-November 2006