Spruced-Up Spezie


Downtown Italian Eatery Revitalizes Menu, D

Spezie reopened last fall after a brief summer hiatus to overhaul both the interior and the menu. Little brother to the perennial Rockville, Md., favorite Il Pizzico, Spezie has offered downtown diners consistently good Italian food and friendly service since it opened six years ago.

To open up space, owner Enzo Livia (also proprietor of Il Pizzico) has replaced Spezie’s wine room with a large communal table and added more informal space in the bar area. The old earth-toned dining room has also been transformed with honey wood, rich cinnamon-pumpkin walls and upholstery. Thankfully, the wonderful wall sconces weren’t touched—delicate arrays of herbs and spices captured in Plexiglas that cast a muted glow on the walls—and the glass screens depicting spice routes still break up the large dining room.

To spruce up the menu, Enzo has brought on hotshot chef Cesare Lanfranconi, co-owner and former chef of Ristorante Tosca. While Spezie underwent its makeover, Lanfranconi was busy working up a menu that, although it preserves a few old favorites, is mostly new. Well schooled in Italian cuisine from an early age, Lanfranconi’s genius lies in his ability to work within a traditional framework both to produce superior examples of standards and to create innovative dishes that simultaneously please and challenge. Here, he has put together a menu that gives ample evidence of both abilities.

Contrasts abound on the menu. Appetizers include a classic frito misto di mare, a substantial portion of bite-size pieces of squid, scallop, oyster and shrimp lightly battered, deep fried and served piping hot, with a basil and olive oil dipping sauce. At the other end of the spectrum, raw branzino fish—sliced carpaccio-thin and marinated in lemon and olive oil—arrives dressed up with tiny capers, caviar and mache salad. The fish is fresh, the marinade subtle, and the presentation elegant. Sea scallops also get a very special treatment in one of the appetizers—dry roasted and nestled on a bed of braised truffled cabbage, chestnut and lobster sauce.

Lanfranconi has concocted a truly surprising salad of an almost slaw-like chopped radicchio, sheep cheese and toasted hazelnuts dressed with a light balsamic vinaigrette and served with slices of roasted pears. It’s a very effective combination, setting the slightly bitter greens (well actually reds) against the richness of the nuts and pungency of the cheese.

Making a choice among the pastas can be very difficult be__cause here, Lanfranconi’s fancy takes flight. Fortunately, half-orders are an option. On a recent visit, small mushroom-stuffed ravioli in a light but rich pistachio cream sauce vied with a roasted pumpkin-stuffed variety, which featured fresh sage, parmesan sauce, amaretto cookies and an agnolotti stuffed with roast veal, prosciutto and spinach in a barbera wine cause. Each was very different, but equally good in its own way—offering the perfectly cooked pasta that characterizes all the choices we had.

Seafood fares particularly well in Lanfranconi’s hands throughout the meal, and recent choices have been excellent. A filet of wild salmon is flash-seared to give it a slightly crunchy crust on the underside while still slightly pink inside. It’s served with a porcini mushroom sauce and a thick slice of layered potato pumpkin cake that tastes like scalloped potatoes all grown up. A thick chunk of tuna, meanwhile, is given a spicier treatment. Seared until just barely warm in the center, it is served with a whole-grain mustard sauce and sautéed rapini that challenges but does not overpower the tuna.

Lanfranconi does not limit his creativity to the fish. The menu offers straightforward meat options, including a nice grilled veal chop, but the herb-crusted lamb chops with artichoke in a black olive sauce as well as the beef filet with grilled eggplant and sautéed spinach in a black truffle sauce are better measures of his talents.

Spezie’s desserts are a heady delight. The apple-and-pumpkin strudel is lightly bathed in a honey-based sauce and accented with dried fruit compote and ricotta cream. Somehow this dish conjures up the essence of Renaissance paintings and late afternoon fall sunshine. Perhaps less magical but equally satisfying, the silky-smooth panna cotta is topped by a thin tart of caramelized berries with a sharp and balancing bite. Spezie’s chocolate mousse cake is unlike anything that goes by this name. A thin layer of peachy-pinkish mousse covers the top, and throughout the cake there is a flaky crunch of pistachio, while candied kumquats bring out the citrus aspect. Only the tiramisu is a disappointment, as it lacks the dimensions of flavor and originality of the other choices.

What perhaps surprises about the new Spezie is the inconsistency of the service. Although the staff has been uniformly agreeable, on crowded evenings there seems to be a bit of a breakdown among kitchen, bar and dining room that leaves you waiting for drinks and eating less-than-hot appetizers. It’s less of a problem on slow evenings, but even then it doesn’t always come off quite right. We can hope it’s only a matter of smoothing out a few wrinkles because with food this good, it would be a real pity if diners miss the chance to try it.

Spezie 1736 L St., NW (202) 467-0777 www.spezie.com

Lunch: Mon. to Fri. 11:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. Dinner: Mon. to Sat. 5:30 – 10 p.m. Prices: Small plates: to ; Pasta: to ; Main courses: to ; Desserts: .50

Dress: Business casual

Reservations: Accepted

About the Author

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