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Now that the beautifully restored Avalon Theater has reopened, there’s more reason than ever to spend some time in the area near Chevy Chase Circle. Upper Connecticut Avenue has some lovely shops and restaurants just below the circle, and with al fresco dining season upon us again, the area is truly a treat. It comes alive at night with a casual quaintness.
Combining moderate prices, a warm Italian welcome, and outdoor seating, Arucola is perfect for a summer evening meal. A couple years back, owner Mahe Bogdanovich bought the restaurant from Roberto Donna, who opened it in 1994 after luring a young chef named Davide Megna from Italy. Talk about stability — Megna remains at the helm.
The place has a sort of Mom-and-Pop atmosphere. You can’t dine at Arucola — at least inside — without it being an intimate experience. With tables spaced closely together and the kitchen, with its wood-burning oven, open to the dining room, it’s a little like being part of a large Italian family at dinnertime.
Start with little neck clams, sweet and fresh, simmered in white wine and garlic. (The only disappointment is the bread, so crucial for soaking up that fabulous liquid, which on several visits was stale.) Portobello mushroom roasted with garlic, olive oil and basil bursts with flavor, the tender, meaty flesh of the mushroom serving as a palette for the triple-flavor marinade.
Grilled octopus is not for the squeamish, as it’s served whole, tentacles spanning a plate adorned with the restaurant’s namesake greens. The trick to grilling this denizen of the sea is getting it cooked enough without the flesh turning into a rubbery mass. Happily, Megna knows what he’s doing and the savage beast is tamed.
A classic watercress salad with pear, walnuts and gorgonzola cheese widely misses its mark. The pear is far too green and the accompanying ingredients not plentiful enough to be active players in what should be a smashing success. More appealing is asparagus and fontina cheese wrapped in prosciutto, although the ham needs to be sliced a bit closer to serving time to prevent it from drying out.
Pasta selections are frequently rotated on the menu. Homemade ravioli, filled with lamb and tossed in a light olive oil and finely minced vegetable sauce, is extraordinary. While the combination of pasta and lamb may sound a touch heavy, these little pillows of flavor are incredibly delicate.
Somewhat heavier, as to be expected, is potato gnocchi in pesto sauce. The pesto — a skillful balance of olive oil, garlic, and basil — invigorates these otherwise bland little potato dumplings. But that is precisely the aim. Risotto with crabmeat, however, suffers from undercooking, denying it a creaminess so critical to this labor-intensive dish. It’s far more typical for risotto to arrive overcooked, and while that error was avoided, undercooking is arguably more of a fault.
Served sizzling hot off the grill with sautÃ©ed porcini mushrooms and steamed spinach, a grilled veal chop is thick and juicy, the chop tender and flavorful, and nicely teamed with its sides.
Orata, a light, freshwater fish, is presented whole for admiration after grilling. It’s then whisked off to the kitchen to be filleted. It was gone so long, I actually began to miss it. Once returned — de-boned and still steaming — the fish had acquired its promised companions of spinach and a bright yellow (and disappointingly runny) polenta.
An entrÃ©e of grilled swordfish comes lazing on a bed of roasted pepper puree. While the fish is excellent and grilled to perfection, the puree is a distraction. Visually and texturally, grilled pepper strips, without the benefit of a food processor, might be a more suitable accompaniment.
Desserts are attractively displayed on a rolling cart, which unfortunately can’t get to most tables because of narrow aisles. So we walked over to the cart, had a look, and chose chocolate, coconut and pistachio tart with zabaione cream, a delicious concoction that calls to mind an Almond Joy candy bar enmeshed with a layer of pistachios. Less accomplished is a mixed berry tart with mascarpone cheese and more of that fabulous zabaione cream. While the pastry crust is nice and flaky, the filling has a dense, rubbery texture.
With a menu that changes its specials frequently, Arucola deserves more than one visit. And despite a few minor disappointments along the way, dining at this casual eatery remains one of upper Connecticut Avenue’s simple pleasures.
David Garver can be reached at email@example.com.