Locanda Hits Sweet Spot With New Lunch Service

Posted December 5, 2007 at 6:10pm

Hill diners looking for a lunch option somewhere between a gargantuan burrito in a paper sack and an expense account blowout are no doubt applauding the addition of Italian eatery Locanda to the neighborhood. Roll Call first visited the low-key but elegant Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast restaurant when it opened its doors in July. But its lunch service, which began in the fall, made it worth another trip. [IMGCAP(1)]

One of the Locanda lunch’s most winning qualities is that it offers options to satisfy a variety of appetites and wallet thicknesses, but tight editing of the menu keeps diners from experiencing that disorienting feeling of trying to navigate way too many categories — a plague that seems to be sweeping plenty of Washington’s upscale restaurants.

There are plenty of simple snacking options, from a plate of either three cheeses or three cured meats, to olive oil-slicked marinated olives. But “simple” doesn’t equate with boring: Along with predictable prosciuttos and parmagianos, there are more eclectic offerings like a spicy and earthy wild boar cacciatorini (a dry, salami-like sausage). A changing-daily frittata makes for a fine opener — or a light main dish. And a Hubbard squash soup, with a hint of smoky curry, was another winner.

Owner Aykan Demiroglu, a former general manager of Le Paradou restaurant in the Penn Quarter, explains that the minimal preparation of much of Locanda’s fare and its carefully curated menu stems from limitations placed on the chefs by the restaurant’s small kitchen.

And diners won’t miss any fussing over high-heat stoves when it comes to dishes like the creamy lumps of burrata cheese (mozzarella with an oozing center) tangled in rosy strips of cured ham.

Locanda has made a name for itself in the neighborhood as a pasta heaven, and it’s easy to see why. A dish of penne arribbiata arrives lapped in subtly spicy tomato sauce, and a silky papardelle is a perfect foil for the tender braised lamb it’s served with. The house-made starches are light, tender and silky.

But Demiroglu says while he’d love to expand the selection by hiring an assistant for Liliana Dumas, the Italian chef who’s responsible for hand-making the pastas, there’s just no way to fit a helper into the kitchen. “She’s not a big lady, but we just don’t have the space,” he says.

Fans of the former restaurant Liliana’s in Chevy Chase will no doubt remember Dumas’ name. In addition to her role as resident pasta mistress, she serves as Locanda’s pastry chef, whipping up confections that feel decadent, but are still light enough to order even when you’ve got an afternoon meeting you can’t nap through. The panna cotta, redolent of lemon and creamy gelato in a rainbow of flavors are standouts on the sweets menu.

The wine list itself is another reason to make Locanda a destination — and to veer from the usual lunchtime libation of iced tea or water. Demiroglu delights in finding small producers, and the result is that ordering a glass is usually a discovery of a variety you’ve not tried before.

“There was one wine I was carrying, and I found out that they were selling it at Marvelous Market, too, so I dropped it,” he says. “I want things you can’t find anywhere else, and I want people to come for the wine.”

For all that Locanda does right, there are some missteps, like burnt spots on the crusty crostini, and calamari that’s limp instead of crisp. This keeps the restaurant from coming off as polished as diners might like it to be. And sometimes, the restaurant’s minimal approach results in a whisper where a shout is needed, as in the case of the mint papardalle with lamb ragu that was heavenly — but nearly devoid of mint flavor — or a lemon aioli topping the BLT panini that lacked the hoped-for citrusy zip.

The dining space itself is sleek and minimal, with airy ceilings, mod chairs and abstract art lining the walls. But touches of sunny colors cozy up the area, and a long bar invites solo diners or those just looking for a pleasant perch from which to enjoy a glass of wine. Panels of insulation have thankfully remedied a problem diners encountered early in the restaurant’s history — the din of voices bouncing off the soaring walls. Service, too, hits the right note, with efficient but warm attention.

Locanda fills a void in the Hill’s dining scene, and those on the prowl for a lunch with more pedigree than a deli sandwich should be happy to say “buongiorno.”

The restaurant, located at 633 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, serves lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.