A.V. Ristorante Italiano


607 New York Ave. N.W.
Tel. (202) 737-0550

Psychologists call it "cognitive dissonance," which means you're headed for trouble if you try to reconcile conflicting notions or beliefs.

Rating:

Food: 7 Ambiance: 5-10
Service: 6 Price/Value: 10

That's my problem with A.V. Ristorante, the venerable Italian restaurant on New York Avenue N.W. that has been in business for 50 years, and whose legions of loyal customers sing its praises. A.V.'s regulars include a virtual Who's Who of official Washington, whose photographs and testimonials to the excellent food, outstanding service and warm family atmosphere line its dark wood walls.

Its enthusiastic fans include House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who dropped in last week; Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonio Scalia, who was there Friday; Attorney General Janet Reno, Sens. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) and Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) who was a mere lad of 46 when the restaurant opened; Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Va.); political consultants Roger Stone and Bob Keefe; and actor Jack Nicholson, to name a few.

HOURS: 1:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Mon.- Thurs.; 11:30 a.m. to mid night, Fri.; 5 to 11 p.m., Sat.; closed Sun.

PRICES: Lunch: Appetizers, $2.95- $7.50; pasta dishes, $6.50- $10; main courses, $8 to $15.

Even good Pope John XXIII provided a tacit endorsement by granting A.V.'s late founder, Augusto Vasaio, a private audience in the early 1960s, a moment recorded for posterity in a large photograph prominently displayed near the entrance.

A more recent endorsement was provided by Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.), Monday night. Berry, who was having dinner with his wife Carolyn, said, "This is my favorite restaurant. I came here with friends when I first came to Washington [as a White House aide in 1993]. After a day on the Hill, I look on this as a place of refuge." In fact, Berry held his staff Christmas party here last year.

In short, everybody who comes here to feast on the many regional Italian specialties like tortollini alla Bolognese, home-made Italian sausage pizzalola, or calamari alla Genovese, seems to agree that this is the best Italian restaurant this side of Bologna or Genoa.

So what's not to like? Well, to be perfectly honest, I found the food disappointing at dinner the other night, the service brusque to the point of rudeness, the gloomy lighting so dim I couldn't read my menu, and the noise level so high I couldn't hear my wife from across the table.

I'd eaten at A.V. Ristorante many times through the years, so I was surprised by the abrupt service. The restaurant was very crowded, so that may account for it, but our waiter seemed offended when my wife asked about several of the specialties and impatiently urged her to make up her mind.

We had to wait a long time for our order, and I'm not sure it was worth the wait.

My wife's spaghetti with oil and garlic ($6.50) tasted like it had been tossed in red pepper and was so fiery that she asked to share my scalloppine al marsala ($12.50). The latter was tougher than veal should be and overly sweet. I finished with a good cup of cappuccino ($3) and the home-made tiramisu, which oddly, had a somewhat bitter taste.

Nevertheless, I can't deny that this fixture in the no-man's land between downtown Washington and Capitol Hill is a unique place that has won the hearts of several generations of Washingtonians.

A.V. gets rave reviews from everyone I spoke to. Take David Viar of Great Falls, Va., who was at the next table with his lawyer wife Ellen, when my wife and I ate there Saturday night. "It's still one of our favorite restaurants," said Viar, who has been eating here since the early 1980s. "The ambiance is wonderful, the food is spectacular, the service is great, and they serve good red wine Italian-style, in a flat-bottomed glass that you can slap down on the table when you get angry or passionate."

The menu, which is the same at lunch and dinner, includes most Italian regional cuisines, along with a dozen or so daily specials. The restaurant is famous for its white pizza, which I had Monday night, along with the calamari alla Genovese. The small New York-style thin-crust pizza ($5.50) was delicious, as was the calamari ($9.25), tender pieces of squid cooked in white wine and onions.

Incidentally, the restaurant's late founder is credited with introducing New York-style pizza to Washington.

Berry praised the Italian sausage pizzalola ($8.50), made on the premises with peppers and mushrooms, and his wife gave high marks to her manicotti con braclola, pasta stuffed with ricotta cheese and rolled stuffed port ($8.50).

There's no question that the restaurant has character. Gus Vasaio's vivacious widow, Sue ("That's short for Assunta," she says), is usually on hand, close by the old style jukebox that plays Italian opera and popular Italian songs, where she greets diners and shares the restaurant's history.

Although her late husband was born in West Virginia, he moved back to Italy with his immigrant family when he was 5, and didn't return to the United States until 22 years later. He worked as a bread baker in New York before moving to Washington and opening A.V. Ristorante in July 1949.

The elder Vasaio died in 1982, but his son, also named Gus, and a stepbrother, Johnny DiBari, now run the restaurant, which seats some 160 people in two dining rooms and the bar. The latter features the largest Carrera marble bar in Washington, along with a replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The outdoor patio seats another 65 people in good weather.

"I've been here 27 years," the younger Vasaio explained. "I came here right out of high school and worked in the kitchen for 10 years before coming to the dining room." As we spoke, he called over a handsome young waiter, and introduced him as his 22-year-old son, Augusto Vasaio III, who is learning the ropes like his father and grandfather, and who will someday run the place.

A.V. Ristorante's prices are astonishingly low. Very few dishes, including the daily specials, are over $13, and most entrees are in the $8 to $10 range. Wine, beer and mixed drinks are also a bargain, with house brand whisky only $3.50, about half what you'd pay at most other D.C. restaurants.

So, despite my disappointing experience, I have to believe what others have told me, and admit that even after 50 years, A.V. Ristorante is still one of the best home-style Italian restaurants around. I'll give it four domes and my best wishes for another successful 50 years.