Cesco on GazetteNetFebruary 1, 2012
Award-winning chef Francesco Ricchi has reason to celebrate this year, his 25th in the United States. The namesake of Bethesda’s venerable Cesco has a beautiful new stage on which to perform culinary magic. Cesco Osteria & Co2 Lounge opened just in time for the year-end holidays in the completely refurbished McCormick & Schmick’s premises.
With more than 10,000 square feet, the welcoming interior features two large dining rooms, two private rooms and a lounge offering late night dining and live entertainment or a deejay. Tables for two overlook the open galley kitchen and beehive pizza oven. Here you likely will find the silver-haired chef giving dishes the once-over as they leave the kitchen.
“My whole staff has come with me, guys who have been with me for 15 years,” Ricchi declares, adding that he hired four additional waiters.
What was envisioned as an informal front room with dark wood tables has evolved into white tablecloth dining like the rear room. At lunch, you can order from the regular menu that features eight antipasti, five salads, nine pastas and 10 mains and/or from the placemat menu of crostinis, bruschetta, 10 individual Florentine pizzas, an infinite variety of designer salads and four pastas with any of 16 sauces.
Our waiter announces the specials and their prices without prompting. When each couple decides to share pasta and an entrée, our orders emerge apportioned on separate plates. The service is impeccable, down to the silverware replacement.
A bread basket cradles pomodoro bruschetta, grissini (thin bread sticks) and Tuscan bread. Two arancini arrive with a superb sun-dried tomato sauce and fresh arugula. These traditional fontina, pea and carrot-filled rice balls are pricey but delicious.
Freshly made pasta is a treat. The spectrum includes cavatelli, tagliatelle, tortelli, ravioli, ravioloni, pappardelle and squid ink tagliolini. Cavatelli (short twists) with zucchini and mozzarella and pappardelle (wide green egg noodles) with Long Island duck sauce are favorites. What isn’t made della casa is made from imported Italian durum wheat pasta. The ubiquitous penne with eggplant, tomato and ricotta salata is one fine example.
The tagliata, spicy top loin steak beautifully grilled pinkish in middle and served over fresh arugula with rustic rosemary potatoes, is so good it could make me a carnivore.
A lunch special, pancetta-wrapped monkfish mignons, appears artfully plated with fresh asparagus spears and roasted rosemary potatoes, deliciously exemplifying why this fish is called “the poor man’s lobster.”
A pair of jumbo roasted scallops, also wrapped in pancetta and served on a bed of sautéed spinach, goat cheese and braised onions, prove an auspicious opener at dinner. The warm baby octopus and shrimp salad studded with black olives, potatoes and green beans is totally satisfying.
Standouts among the 15 entrées include grilled whole Mediterranean sea bass (orata) with olive oil, garlic-herb sauce and baby peas; and slices of marinated lamb tenderloin, perfectly grilled with a hint of pink, piled atop a warm lentil salad. Prosecco-braised veal ossobuco, complete with gremolata, is Italian comfort food. It is properly prepared with the meat fork tender, coming off the bone. The marrow is the piece de resistance. Our preference, though, would have been for a traditional Milanese risotto accompaniment rather than a potato purée.
Sautéed prawns and scallops bathe in a Marsala sauce attended by crispy polenta strips and extraneous housemade chips. A side dish of sautéed Swiss chard with garlic and olive oil shows that simple is best.
My dessert favorite is the ambrosial Chocolate Meringata Torte, layers of meringue and dark chocolate mousse with chocolate chips, served semi-freddo. For simpler indulgences, the gelati (vanilla, chocolate and hazelnut) and sorbetti (lemon, mango, berry) made in house are delicious and you can order a scoop of each. Bomboloni di Cesco (vanilla cream, chocolate custard or apricot jam-filled doughnut holes) make bite-sized treats. The Nutella and mascarpone filled sweet calzone is undersized for the price.
The wine selection seems extensive with a wide range of prices represented.
Choose from specially selected draft beer and wine, spirits and savory bites during Happy Hour in the Lounge, Monday to Friday between 5 and 7 p.m. Listen to live jazz Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights from 6 to 9 p.m.
Garage parking below the restaurant is $3, cash only. An elevator leads to the restaurant’s lobby entrance. In warmer weather, the lighted arcade out front will turn into a European-style café. I am looking forward to that.