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Pricey Evolution

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Primi Piatti Stands Test of Time With Superb, but Expensive Italian Dishes

How do you choose a great restaurant? Do you choose by location, type of cuisine, variety, price, atmosphere, service, familiarity, reputation? Certainly all those factors come into play, but for high-end restaurants, most diners probably expect good performance in all of them to justify the price.

Savino Recine’s Primi Piatti is a case in point. Opened by Recine and Roberto Donna in 1987 as a follow-up project to their highly successful Galileo, Primi Piatti has stood the test of time and changes in fashion that have done in so many competitors. Opened as an affordably priced neighborhood establishment offering extensive antipasti and the area’s first wood-fired pizza oven, Primi Piatti has ridden the wave of high-end Italian restaurants that began transforming the D.C. haute cuisine dining scene, which was previously dominated by French, at the end of the 1980s. Evolving from the trattoria-type model on which it was conceived, Primi Piatti is now one of the area’s more expensive Italian restaurants.

Conveniently located in Foggy Bottom, Primi Piatti’s space of peachy neutrals and earth tones accented with gold and cherry-wood furnishing is restfully elegant. The wine cellar dining room makes a cozy hideaway for private parties, and the bar and lounge, which give way to the outside terrace, are nice for more casual dining. Mirrored walls minimize the somewhat long and narrow first-floor space but can’t quite conceal the fact that there is very little space to move in the main dining room.

The food at Primi Piatti is undeniably good. The menu is varied and changes regularly in response to seasonal availability, and the dishes are frequently inventive and almost invariably well executed.

An interesting array of hot and cold appetizers, the foundation of the restaurant’s menu when it first opened, covers the culinary landscape: tiny crêpes pouched and filled with micro-thin duck laced with a saffron cream sauce; salmon carpaccio served with arugula, grape tomatoes and parmegiano cheese; and limey tuna tartar on a bed of baby artichokes. From simple to complex, the procession of excellent starters is a clear sign of a mature and well-run kitchen.

Heavily featured, seafood is usually very well done and demonstrates the kitchen’s particular ability to work with shellfish. One a recent visit, shrimp appeared on both the hot and cold menus, in interesting preparations. Served warm with cannellini and cold over mushrooms, the dishes showed not only the versatility of that fine little crustacean, but the kitchen’s mastery of it. The pan-roasted options are also prepared perfectly with crusty outsides that give way to moist and delicate interiors. The filet of salmon, served over a bed of artichoke bottom and spinach flavored with warm fennel-vincotto vinaigrette is excellent. Equally appealing is the filet of pan-roasted red snapper served over asparagus and capers in lemony-garlicky dressing, with just the right touch of salt and tart to balance the unusually pungent snapper.

Unlike many of the other high-end Italian restaurants in the area, the menu offers a fairly broad range of pastas incorporating meats, shellfish, cheese and fruit while offering some nice vegetarian choices as well. Homemade chestnut gnocchi is an interesting and unusual choice. The smallish, slightly sweet brown dumplings swim in a rich fontina cheese sauce. The fiocchi—purse-shape pastas filled with pear and taleggio and robiola cheeses—is equally surprising. Served in a light cream sauce, the dish almost introduces pasta as a dessert concept.

Desserts at Primi Piatti are eclectic—a collection of traditional favorites including a nicely put-together tiramisu, a rich chocolate hazelnut cake served with vanilla sauce, and a superb passion fruit crème brulée that simultaneously caresses the palate and puckers the lips. An even more exotic choice is the cantaloupe mousse served with various fresh berry sauces. Not as sweet as the other choices, and much less rich than many mousses, it’s a nice palate-cleansing follow-up to one of the rich pasta dishes.

But the dining experience cannot be just about the food, especially when the food is pricey because there are many moderately priced restaurants in D.C. that offer excellent food in plain surroundings. In Primi Piatti’s price category, a diner may reasonably expect restaurants to offer a total dining experience—and this is where Primi Piatti falls down. One would expect service to be exceptional, but it is not. Although the wait staff is in general agreeable and knowledgeable and can be attentive, it is inconsistent. Guests are on occasion treated with a casualness that would be unacceptable even in a much less serious restaurant.

During a recent visit, we observed Recine himself preside over the rearrangement of tables to accommodate a large party that involved bumping the tables of the two parties sitting on either side. During another visit, the bill arrived with two errors about which the manager argued. There is a general feeling that customer service has taken a backseat in the drive to accommodate the maximum number of diners—a real pity for one of D.C.’s more enduring restaurant icons.

A consolation is that Recine is also a superb magician, a craft he has spent years honing. He often dazzles with his card and other magic tricks, entertaining groups at the restaurant.

Nevertheless, Primi Piatti faces the challenge that many high-end area restaurants must contend with: the growing number of establishments that appeal to more casual and price-sensitive diners who still want top-notch food. As this trend continues, Primi Piatti will need to continue to distinguish itself by making sure it offers diners the complete package.

Primi Piatti 2013 I St., NW. (202) 223-3600 www.primipiatti.com

Lunch: Mon. to Fri. 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. Dinner: Mon. to Sat. 5:30 - 10:30 p.m. Dress: Business casual Prices: Appetizers/salads: -.50; pastas: .50 - .50; pizzas: - .50; meat and fish entrees: .50 - .50; desserts: .75 -

About the Author

Rachel Hunt and Stephen Qualiana are the restaurant reviewers for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999