Pollo alla Romana
Chicken breast sauteed in Sherry, fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and artichoke hearts.
Photo credit: Joe Mahoney/Times-Dispatch
Dining Out: Little Venice offers Italian specialties
Rating 3.5 stars
By Dana Craig
Published: January 06, 2011 in the Richmond Times Dispatch
Exceptional service. Such a simple concept, really. Meet a customer's needs before he or she knows they exist and do so with such relaxed confidence that customers remember only your accommodating smile, not your constant interruptions.
Sure, it's simple, but it's such a rare find in Richmond. Even some of the city's most expensive fine-dining restaurants stun me with how sub par the service is. I don't mean blatant errors, such as forgetting to put in an order or bringing the wrong wine. I mean the basic art of front-of-the-house finesse.
If you usually spend the car ride home from a restaurant singing the praises of the kitchen but lambasting the server who couldn't describe (much less pronounce) the evening's one special, I suggest you visit Little Venice.
Located in a quiet shopping center just outside the craziness of Short Pump, Little Venice is owned by brothers Alberto and Peppino Mastromano, the brains and brawn behind the creation of an exceptional dining experience.
Open eight years this November, Little Venice has long been known for both Alberto's genuine customer service and chef Peppino's Italian specialties, which range from hand-made ribbon pasta tossed with smoked salmon and vodka cream sauce ($19.95) to red snapper alla Livornese ($25.95) with garlic, capers and olives.
Little Venice's menu doesn't try to push the limits of trendiness. Instead, Peppino enlivens classic dishes by making much from scratch and using only the freshest ingredients.
As one would expect of a restaurant adhering to such standards in the kitchen, Little Venice also has an exceptional wine list ($25-$210). Options range from Simi Chardonnay ($42) to several Italian reds — 2005 Masi Amarone ($130) and 2007 Banfi Rosso Di Montalcino ($58), for example.
Before we could set foot in the door during a recent Tuesday night visit, Alberto came around the bar and greeted us amicably. After we settled into a small table by the window, his affability impressed me further as he made the rounds, chatting with regulars and having a laugh with newcomers.
As we perused the already lengthy menu, one of what proved to be several servers assisting us that evening detailed the surprisingly long list of specials, a nightly standard at Little Venice.
We started with escargots ($9.50) and a special of eggplant Sorrentino ($7.95).
Served in a decadent garlic-Cognac butter sauce, each meaty morsel of snail melted in our mouths. Despite defying gravity with its delicacy, the puff pastry added tantalizing richness.
Generously breaded yet still airy, tender rounds of fried eggplant were stacked with thick tomato slices and mozzarella, allowing every bite to radiate with the simple freshness of each ingredient.
For entrees, we tried short rigatoni ($20.95) accented with sun-dried tomatoes, sweet Italian sausage and Taleggio cheese in a light red sauce, and Vitello alla Veneto ($25.95), veal scaloppine sautéed in lemon butter and mushrooms and finished with demi glace.
Fat pieces of al dente rigatoni mingled harmoniously with the fennel-laced sausage while the tomatoes evened things out with a bristle of tanginess. It should be noted that Little Venice's sauces aren't the typical "gravy" you may know from other Italian joints. Peppino's sauces are lighter with more complexly woven flavors.
The veal was pounded so thin it virtually melted into the lemon butter's delicate embrace. An abundant heap of mushrooms answered the savory demi glace with an earthy counterpoint.
As we passed the bar on the way out, Alberto was enjoying a filet. He stopped to make sure we were seen out with proper yet amiable decorum.
Sure, Little Venice is priced in special-occasion realm, but to enjoy service and food like this, I think I may be inventing a few holidays in the near future.
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Freelance writer and graphic designer Dana Craig has been reviewing restaurants for The Times-Dispatch since 2004. The Times-Dispatch pays for the meals on her unannounced visits to restaurants. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at http://twitter.com/danacraigrtd.