In this era of ever-increasing uncertainty we long for familiarity and comfort. When Mrs. Simpson’s, the grand dame of Woodley Park eateries, closed last year it was just another reminder that the world can change in little, unsettling ways, almost without notice. Happily, Vincenzo Belvito has come to the rescue of this cheerful space by opening his long dreamed of Italian eatery, Pesto. Belvito, who cooked for five years at La Tomate in Dupont Circle, has transformed the space by adding Tuscan yellow walls and an antique-reproduction tin ceiling. A small mahogany bar greets customers upon arrival and the aroma wafting from his kitchen, where chef Antonio Giarrusso toils, heightens your anticipation.
Offering much of the typical Italian fare Washingtonians love so much, Pesto’s menu has an inviting and familiar feel. It struck me as odd, however, that not a single item on the menu includes the restaurant’s namesake. Maybe pesto is featured in occasional daily specials, but wasn’t during my recent visits, much to my disappointment.
Still, there is much to like. A flavorful lamb sausage with wilted spinach and balsamic reduction makes for a perfect winter appetizer. The bursting flavor of the sausage combines with the vinegar reduction’s pungent sweetness to create a memorable pairing. Another pairing of thin slices of eggplant wrapped around mozzarella cheese and baked in a fresh tomato sauce is wonderful, the eggplant baked only long enough so that it retains its delicate texture.
Grilled portobello mushroom topped with goat cheese and herbs is a big hit, the tart cheese an apt accent to the dense, woody-tasting mushroom. It’s puzzling, however, that the same kitchen can also turn out such awful fried calamari, which arrives looking more gray than golden brown and is far chewier than it should be. With its oil-laden coating, thisÂ dish truly needs immediate remedial attention.
Another starter of tomato and mozzarella is surprisingly delicious considering how difficult it must be to find properly ripened tomatoes in the winter. The mozzarella is very fresh and mild. While fresh basil lends its pungent flavor to bring this traditional triple combo to life, the presence of dried crushed oregano is an unwelcome interloper. One evening’s special of lobster bisque was as rich and flavorful as one could hope for, its velvety texture exquisite.
An entr Ã©e of seafood ravioli in a creamy tomato sauce bursts with flavor. Tender scallops resting atop plump ravioli nicely complement the mixed seafood filling. Another main course of sea bass is dry, having spent too much time under the broiler. But the accompanying polenta and chopped artichokes in a white wine sauce saves the day.
Saltimbocca, thinly sliced veal sprinkled with sage and topped with prosciutto before a quick saut Ã©e in butter and white wine, is tender and juicy. Sometimes the sage can be overpowering in this dish, but at Pesto it’s used with restraint, allowing the other flavors to step forward for their bows. Osso bucco, the slow roasting of which results in fabulously rich pan juices, lacks only a dash of salt to round out its fine flavor. But the companion orzo is overcooked and lacks its expected firm texture.
Desserts are a disappointment — especially those made in-house. The chocolate moose is forgettable and the crÃ¨me brul Ã©e not much better. While the latter has a lovely thin brittle topping, the custard below lacks creaminess and is so dense you can stand a spoon upright in it. Tiramisu fares the best, but Pesto’s version seems only a caricature of the classic Italian delicacy. You’re better off sticking with the dense chocolate cake or lemon tart baked elsewhere.
Service at Pesto is warm and friendly, stopping just short of a level of casualness that might distract some during the dining experience. Efficiency and skill should never take a back seat to familiarity when it comes to service and the wait staff knows exactly where to draw the line.
It’s natural to feel a little nostalgic when a restaurant as venerable as Mrs. Simpson’s closes its doors. And yet, despite some glitches along the way, Pesto offers a fresh start, one unencumbered by the past.