[from May 2005 issue]

The evening started off with an almost-mishap: Narrowly running over Andy Rooney (or his clone) crossing near the Cosmos Club, which preceded an interminable conversation about terrorism and politics at a nearby table. Could the food rescue the mood, the evening? Yes, as it turned out. The dinner at Etrusco salved the sagging spirits, offering the promise of better things to come.

Of all the Dupont Circle restaurants, Etrusco has seemed to stand apart with its limited hours and very sophisticated ambiance. A change in chefs--from Francesco Ricchi to George Vetsch--and a substantial change in menu mark a sea change for this very up-scale Italian eatery. Don’t expect to find tomato-based spaghetti sauces favored by Italo-American cooks, or the pappardelle with duck sauce once served on Ricchi’s menu. What you will find is classic Italian cooking stripped of any frills or fripperies.

Although the menu changes nightly, assured the waiter, you can expect exquisite perfection in, say, the asparagus appetizer served with olive oil, lemon quarters and parsley, or scaled up a notch with butter and Parmesan cheese. For simplicity’s sake, stick with the olive oil, which seems more authentic anyway, and let the waiter garnish your olive oil ramekin for bread dunking with freshly grated Parmesan cheese, then drizzle some of that over the carefully peeled and trimmed spears. Five to a plate, and just enough to appreciate the simple pleasures of fresh lemon juice squeezed over asparagus brushed with olive oil.

Oh, yes, the bread. Rustic, whole-grained and with a crumbly texture, it’s a perfect foil for fruity olive oil. You may even wish for more bread for soaking up sauces and for dunking in olive oil.

Starter selections avoid such routine offerings as grilled sausage, fried calamari, or bruschetta in favor of buffalo mozzarella with anchovy sauce or an antipasto mixture with artichokes, asparagus wrapped in Parma prosciutto, farm egg with anchovy, and beans, tuna and onion. Salads, too, seem to take the less-is-more approach with the asparagus choices joined by an arugual, dandelion and cress bowl and a vegetable soup purée.

Adhering to a strict Italian meal format, you’d move on to the pasta course, here spaghetti brightened by your choice of four different sauce toppings: tomato and basil; shrimp, squid and mussels; anchovies tomato, olives, oregano and breadcrumbs; and, finally, mussels with garlic and parsley.

On the other hand, the eager would skip that in favor of the main game: here, a choice of seafood or meat entrées. If it shows up, a classic zuppa di pesce--a brawny but not briny seafood chowder--has a broth with a delicate tomato base laced with herbs and wonderful seafood flavors, and brimming with chunks of a fleshy white fish, mussels, plump shrimp and calamari--all in all, a memorable feast.

The ideal conclusion? A fresh strawberry gelato, obviously seasonal, and so intensely strawberry you might think you have sat down to a bowl of fresh fruit. Fresh strawberries also turn up topped with crema zabaione, and fresh pineapple in a sorbeto. Otherwise, expect a vanilla gelato several ways or a torta alla caprese, or chocolate-almond cake.

With its sand-colored walls, scattered potted greens, and modern jazz background music, Etrusco offers a quiet respite from the DC crush. And with some imagination, if you sit in the atrium section, you could almost believe you are on a terrazzo in some Italian villa. Perhaps.

Trattoria Etrusco, 1606 20th St., NW; tel., (202) 667-0047. Hours: Dinners only, Mon.-Sat. Entrée price range: $16 to $27. Major credit cards accepted.

Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor, and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former editor of the Vegetarian Times and former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

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