March-April 2012 | Reviews

Not Ready For Prime Time

Cesco Osteria's lunch scores. Dinner? Not so much

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If I wasn’t a restaurant critic, would I spend my own dime and time at Cesco Osteria? I’d go back in a minute for lunch or dessert. As for dinner—not so fast.

That may sound odd, considering that the serious cooking occurs in the evening. Both meals are overseen by veteran Tuscan chef Francesco Ricchi. Yet the informal lunch menu devised by the chef—with design-your-own pasta dishes and salads—is fun and unusual, with high-quality ingredients and endless combinations. Meanwhile at dinner, there’s just not much pizzazz on the plates.

Pastry chef Wilma Piovesan’s terrific roster of not-too-sweet desserts is available for both meals, but I’d much rather eat them in the daytime.

The restaurant’s huge windows let in sunlight and airiness, and the atmosphere is more relaxed than on a busy weekend night. The same goes for savoring the house-made bread basket, a particularly good (and gratis) assortment of elegant breadsticks, tomato-topped focaccia and crusty slices of bread.

That said, the place was still a work in progress in mid-January, after being open for about six weeks.

Chef Francesco Ricchi. Photo by Stacy Zarin-GoldbergRicchi, 66, envisioned two separate dining rooms, each with a different menu, when he planned the move from the longtime home of Cesco Trattoria, his previous incarnation on Bethesda’s Cordell Avenue, to bigger digs in the old McCormick & Schmick’s space on Woodmont Avenue. One dining room was to be kid-friendly and casual; the other would offer his Tuscan specialties with higher prices and white tablecloths.

But before opening, Ricchi decided the arrangement might create the impression of upper- and lower-class seating, so he opted for both menus to be served in both dining areas—with tablecloths for all.

During my dinner there, the informal menu was not available, and Ricchi later said—understandably—that having two menus was proving too cumbersome. At press time, he was planning to offer the casual menu, including a few more complicated dishes, only at lunch. The traditional menu would be offered at dinner, with the addition of pizza and a few other simpler options.

We’ll see how it all shakes out. Meanwhile, here’s my take on my very different meals:

At lunch, the fun begins with the starters—a selection of cold crostini and hot bruschetta. The menu offers three pieces of each type of grilled bread appetizer, but you can also mix and match, sampling three different toppings.

The standout of my trio was the bruschetta with ricotta and crispy salami—little pieces of fried salami sitting atop a generous schmear of the spreadable cheese. The combination of the crunchy saltiness of the salami and the creamy sweetness of the ricotta was divine. (I’d be happy to get an order of three and call it lunch—with one of Piovesan’s desserts, of course.)