Savino's Café, which opened last year in Dupont Circle, is a handsome, spacious fine Italian restaurant that appears to be doing very well in a very competitive environment. The attractive lounge area, with its comfortable furniture, greeting arriving guests may soon have you forgetting that you've come for dinner. It's a great place to have a specialty cocktail before heading off to your table.
A doorway at the far end of the bar area leads to a large and inviting dining space with a simple décor. Floor to ceiling windows along an entire side of the room give it an airy feeling.
An ambitious menu delivers as much as it promises. A cold appetizer of pan-seared sea scallops, tender and moist, served atop a corn salad with spring onions and balsamic-mustard dressing is a nice opener, although the kernels of corn are somewhat chewy. Steamed shrimp served over fresh mango, avocado and wild greens offer a light and refreshing beginning. Its olive oil, lemon and basil dressing enlivens this very fresh presentation.
Diced shallots and fennel provide a foundation for fresh tuna tartar topped with black olive pesto. The combination works quite well, but it's disappointing not to be able to experience the full fresh flavor of the tuna, overpowered by the more dominant olives. The presentation includes a "graffiti" of fennel pesto around the open spaces on the plate. A new spicy seafood ragu with a tomato base presented over soft polenta is a winner. The creamy warm polenta is a perfect counterpoint to the zesty, thick ragu studded with a variety of morsels from the sea.
Savino's handles pasta dishes with great aplomb, turning out a wide variety of perfectly al dente forms with some imaginative ingredients. Each is now available in half or full portions, a welcome feature for those looking for a light meal. One recently added pasta dish of capellini with lump crabmeat and asparagus in a peppery olive oil dressing is truly spectacular. Generously loaded with fresh, flavorful crabmeat, it should not be missed.
Another rather inspired pasta creation is worthy of note since fruit is a rare pasta ingredient, unless you're a member of the "tomatoes are fruit" camp. Here ripened pear is combined with a duo of cheeses and stuffed inside a pasta pillow. Taleggio, a semisoft cheese from the Lombardy region of Italy is combined with robbiola, a soft unripened cheese with a wonderfully rich and creamy texture, both produced with cow's milk. This could almost become a dessert if served with a sweet sauce, but in the presence of a light cream sauce, it's a beautifully balanced melding of subtle flavors.
An offering described as "homemade spaghetti with guitar shaped instrument" gets a round of chuckles from diners. I assume it's meant to read "homemade pasta in the shape of a guitar," but I wasn't feeling particularly adventurous so nothing definitive can be reported. This reminded me though of my idea to travel around the world making my way by editing English on restaurant menus in exchange for meals. Perhaps Washington is the place to start.
Among meat entrées, the grilled pork tenderloin is a standout. Served with fresh green beans, Jerusalem artichokes, and small, bittersweet bulbs of the grape hyacinth known as cipollini, the pork is tender and juicy and has a smoky crisp outer surface from the grilling. Roasted fillet of rockfish is impressively fresh and moist, served over thin slices of fennel, sun-dried tomatoes, sweet peppers, capers and finished with a butter-lemon sauce.
Not one to miss dessert? Try the chocolate hazelnut cake. Beautifully presented with vanilla sauce and toasted hazelnuts, this dense cake is a chocolate-lovers treat. Also, passion fruit crème brûlée comes with a lovely brittle caramelized topping and is surprisingly tart.
Almond semifreddo with "sweet peaches" is disappointing. While the ice cream is thickly studded with almonds, the peaches are right out of a can. In contrast, panna cotta (literally "cooked cream") with a sauce of fresh blueberries is vastly better, although eggless custard is not terribly exciting.
Restaurateur Savino Recine has created a popular destination for urban dining and an Italian menu laced with imagination and executed with skill. This recipe for success has some strong support, though, from the ones being used in his very accomplished kitchen.