Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

Savor al Sospiro’s simple pleasures in Olney

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Al Sospiro Trattoria Romana & Wine Bar

18035 Georgia Ave., Olney

301-570-3185, fax 301-570-3186

Hours: Wed.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., Sun., Tues.-Thurs. 5-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5-10 p.m. Closed Mondays.

Style of cuisine: Italian

Dinner entrees: $17-$23

Credit cards: All major cards

Accessible (ramp to lower level) (under construction)

Finneyfrock’s is gone. In its place, al Sospiro (‘‘the Sigh”) promises to become a new Olney institution. Owner-chef and Rome native Antonio Lombardi and his wife worked wonders turning the one-time blacksmith shop and lawnmower repair shop into an inviting neighborhood gathering place, established MMVII.

The tiny entry room’s small wine bar with cozy seating is just the place to enjoy a bite of food and Sunday through Thursday wine specials from 5 to 7 p.m. For more serious eating, proceed directly downstairs where 40 seats and a bar comprise a comfortable Roman grotto.

Tara Lombardi applied her artist’s talents to the decoration, the colors and the painting. Ragged umber and olive walls display Italian ceramics. Rustic earthenware dishes add color on wooden tables accented with olive branches.

Lombardi was studying electrical engineering when he discovered that his heart was in the kitchen.

‘‘I’ve been cooking since I was a young, young fellow. My mom was a great cook and my uncle was a pastry chef in Rome,” he says by phone several days after my visit.

Locally, his experience has been in the front of the house. He has been general manager at Cesco in Bethesda and worked at Amada Amante in Rockville.

Lombardi underscores the family nature of the restaurant.

‘‘I’m always here. I try to come out into the dining room as much as I can. I like to see my customers,” he says.

His wife works the dining room on weekends. From what I observed, she does an excellent job treating the regular customers like old friends — which they may in fact be, since the family lives in Brookeville.

‘‘The food is basically, ’come se manga a Roma,’ the way we eat in Rome, not complicated, fairly simple,” the chef says. Pasta is cooked to order, sauces made on the spot, stocks made ‘‘the way grandma used to cook.”

The menu is seasonal. Specials usually include a fish and a pasta. Our server forgot to mention these (our loss), but was unusually accommodating in getting answers to other food-related questions. Lombardi uses Italian products — olive oil, pasta, cheeses, rice and polenta.

His philosophy is simple: ‘‘If an item is good and high quality, you don’t have to do much to it ... add a little extra virgin olive oil, a little garlic, a little rosemary.”

So it’s no surprise that the abbacchio scottadito (red-wine marinated baby lamb chops) with rapini, one of his favorite vegetables, are a hit (though only one order arrived rare as specified). Or that the polpetti (baby octopus) sautéed in light tomato wine sauce has fans. Or that the zuppa di lenticchie (hearty lentil soup with Parmigiano and panchetta) is satisfying. The piatto di verdure alla griglia (grilled eggplant, zucchini, red onions, red bell pepper, artichoke heart) served with Gorgonzola and a polenta wedge, is nicely executed as is the gamberi alla griglia (grilled shrimp) with polenta and al dente green beans.

The bread basket, however, could use a boost from the ordinary.

Baking is Tara Lombardi’s province: torta della nonna (‘‘grandma’s cake,” a moist, not too sweet ricotta cheesecake), Roman biscotti, crostata, a simple pastry with homemade preserves, and espresso poundcake. Lombardi also offers budino di cioccolato (warm Italian chocolate pudding) and a knockout tiramisu. He doesn’t want to do things everyone else does, he says, but people requested this dessert.

Children’s tastes are accommodated by preparing simple pastas and chicken dishes.

Dinner appetizers and salads are $8, soups $7, sides $6 and pastas $14, with prices a bit lower at lunch. Some two dozen wines range from California zinfandel to a top of the line Montepulciano.

Although Lombardi describes his menu as small, there’s much to draw me back: orecchiette (shells) with rapini, garlic and red pepper; tonno al grano di pepe (peppercorn pan seared tuna) with rapini; and straccetti alla rughetta (very thin veal medallions) with balsamic baby arugula. Add to those one of the chef’s favorites (mine, too), pastiera, an Easter pastry made with ricotta and grana (hulled wheat) that Lombardi likes all year long.