A taste of Venice in Adams Morgan

Sometimes, you find wonderful restaurants where you least expect them, like San Marco, an unpretentious Italian trattoria in the middle of polyglot Adams Morgan that makes you think you’re in the middle of Venice in the famous piazza of the same name.

It’s Saturday night and the traffic will soon be bumper-to-bumper on 18th Street, with its awkward back-in diagonal parking and plethora of ethnic restaurants and trendy bars, so we make an early 6 p.m. reservation and take a chance on an illegal parking space behind the restaurant on Kalorama Place.

albert eisele
Co-owners Roberto Masserin and Pino Mele with a few grappas bottles

We’re the first customers, and we’re warmly greeted by maitre d’ and co-owner Roberto Massarin. He has time to visit with us, which is fortunate because he has a fascinating story to tell.

A native of Venice, Roberto and chef/co-founder Pino Mele, who is from Sardinia, have been a team since 1970, when they worked at the only Michelin two-star restaurant in Genoa, Italy. Hoping to strike it rich in America, they came to Washington on the Fourth of July, 1980, and opened a restaurant under the same name, Giacomo, in Georgetown.

Bad move. “We lost $750,000 in six months,” Roberto explains. “We didn’t know anything about the restaurant business here. We tried to reproduce our Genoa restaurant, and it didn’t work. [Customers] didn’t even know what risotto was.”

So Roberto and Pino went to work at the now-defunct Tiberio on K Street and in 1988 opened their own 55-seat restaurant, Veneziano, at the present location in Adams Morgan. They operated it for 10 years, then sold it to a Marriott food and beverage manager, who gave up after only six months.

“We were responsible for the lease, so we bought it back and changed the name to San Marco because we wanted a name that was easier to remember,” Roberto, 64, said. They simplified the menu, eliminating unfamiliar dishes such as tripe and rabbit, and changed the seven-days-a-week, lunch-and-dinner schedule to dinner only Monday to Saturday.

Roberto also brought his lifelong collection of more than 50 colorful Venetian carnival masks, which adorn the walls along with Venice photographs. Even more impressive is his vast collection of grappas, some 408 bottles of the fiery Italian brandy.

And if customers at the ill-fated Giacomo didn’t know what risotto was, they certainly do now. Pino offers a choice of four different risottos, each priced at $10.50. The plump Arborio rice is cooked to creamy perfection for 20 minutes until it absorbs the flavor of its mushrooms, shrimp, sausage or squid ink. I had the Milanese version with saffron and shrimp, and it was as good as this uniquely Italian dish gets.

There are also more than a dozen different homemade pastas, all in the $10 range and served al dente, including a luxurious angel-hair pasta with pesto, tomato and Bolognese sauces that my wife ordered. “It’s called the ‘Three Musketeers’ in honor of Alexander Dumas, who was born in Italy,” Roberto explains. She liked it, but the three sauces confused my taste buds. Next time, I’ll order the agnolotti, the ultimate test of a pasta chef, filled with ricotta and spinach in a walnut cream sauce.

Our meal started with a basket of made-on-the-premises bread and focaccia with olive oil for dipping and a silky Parma prosciutto wrapped around melon ($7.50). As other guests, all casually dressed, arrived, many greeted Roberto like an old friend. A couple at the next table were enjoying a platter of asparagus spears in garlic, olive oil and lemon.

Like everything else at San Marco, including the list of mostly Italian wines — we had a very nice Chianti for $26 — prices are surprisingly reasonable. The meat and fish main courses — secondi in Italian — range from the veal chop, the most expensive at $21, to $13 for the beef ravioli. My wife chose the almond-crusted river trout with garlic, olive oil and white wine, and I had the veal scaloppini with fresh mushrooms, brandy and cream, each $14.

The latter included four kinds of mushrooms — cepes, morels, shitakes and creminis — which I devoured along with the scaloppini before helping my wife finish half of her trout, which covered the plate. We took the other half home, along with the half-unfinished portions of risotto and angel-hair pasta for lunch the next day.

I finished, or thought I was finished, with the best tartufo I’ve ever had, and a robust espresso, when Roberto brought us two of his best grappas, one colorless and the other infused with orange, along with an off-the-menu plate of profiteroles filled with ice cream and swimming in melted chocolate. The grappas, with an astronomical 40 percent alcohol content, were bracing, to say the least.

I was dismayed to hear Roberto say that he and Pino will end their long partnership next year, when they plan to sell San Marco and retire.

Roberto says the restaurant scene in Adams Morgan is changing now that the city has lifted its moratorium on new liquor licenses. “It’s becoming more of a drinking place, with a lot of places serving finger food, and they get away with that,” he says with a note of incredulity. “A lot of places are only open now on weekends.”

Although San Marco will remain in business for at least another year, I’d recommend you take advantage of this lovely little restaurant while it’s still there. It’s a lot cheaper than going to Venice, and you’ll have a great meal. And if you’re lucky, like I was, you won’t get a ticket for parking illegally.