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Aria Trattoria, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. (202) 312-1250 When the curtain went up on Aria Trattoria over the summer at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, we couldn’t help hoping for greatness. Sure, the site at 13th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue had already been home to two failed ventures — Palomino and Jordan’s — but we weren’t ready to give up on the prime downtown location, lofty dining room, and pleasant outdoor patio. Just maybe the third venture would be the charm. Unfortunately, we can’t proclaim greatness. Aria sings a familiar tune of run-of-the-mill Italian fare — pizza, pastas, paninis, and a few meat and fish dishes. But while Aria’s cuisine is generally uninspired, its something-for-everyone menu and friendly prices make it a sensible destination for groups and informal business lunches. If you’re going to dine at Aria, go for lunch. For starters, the restaurant offers an inviting antipasto bar featuring Italian meats, cheeses, sweet red peppers, roasted mushroom caps, and an assortment of prepared salads. The price of visiting the bar is determined by plate size — $5 for a small, $8 for a medium, or $11 for a regular dinner plate. Not only are the selections fresh and appealing, but taking care of your own first course gets a meal rolling quickly. Aria’s salads also prove to be a smart bet. A plate of endive, treviso, and arugula, with grilled pears, morsels of gorgonzola, and citric vinegarette makes a crisp and lively starter. Another stop worth making is a main course Caesar salad with yellowfin tuna — an artful presentation of romaine lettuce, meaty slabs of fish spread with anchovy dressing, and a pretty parmesan crisp. Aria’s pasta selection contains few show-stoppers but several solid items. The seafood linguine, sampled on our waiter’s recommendation, teems with plump shrimp and mussels and benefits from a generous dusting of red pepper flakes. A robust combination of rigatoni noodles, tomatoes, and crumbly Italian sausage is capped by a bubbling layer of fontina cheese. And whole cloves of sweet roasted garlic add delicate flavor to a bowl of egg noodles smothered in a rich ragout. A late lunch of this Pappardelle Bolognese, paired with a glass of Italian red, is a perfect midwinter pick-me-up. Aria’s pizzas, however, are a riskier venture. The classic margherita pizza suffers from overly sweet tomato sauce and charred basil. The white pizza benefits from a heavy dose of garlic, but still comes off as one-note. While the pies sport promising thin crusts, they both needed an extra few minutes crisping in the oven. Most diners at Aria probably never make it to the meat and fish entrees. If you get that far, try the anglerfish piccata — sauteed medallions of anglerfish (also known as monkfish), topped with crisp pancetta strips and doused in a bright lemon, butter, and caper sauce. The salty ham and tart sauce complement the succulent fish without overwhelming its subtle sweetness. Braised chicken with green olives and celery also makes a worthy wintertime meal. Aria’s dining room has undergone a significant facelift since its last iteration, including farmhouse yellow walls to drive home the rustic Italian theme. If you can, take a table in the spacious indoor patio. With the noonday sun beaming in, lunch in the glass enclosure feels like eating alfresco on a summer day, even in November. Service at Aria ranges from capable to completely absent. At lunch, the wait staff tends to be prompt and efficient. Our dinner visit, however, was a completely different story. Inspired by the sommelier’s intriguing pitch, we ordered flights of wine (part of a relatively interesting and well-priced wine program). But when the wines were delivered, no one came to tell us what we were sampling. By meal’s end, our server had all but disappeared, leaving us to swipe silverware from a nearby table to use on dessert. (Speaking of last courses, it’s hard to trust an Italian restaurant that fumbles its tiramisu, and Aria skimps on the espresso — its tiramisu is all sweet cream and liquor.) While we’ve learned not to expect much from tenants at 1300 Pennsylvania Ave., we hope that Aria’s kitchen can iron out its kinks. Vanessa Blum is a senior reporter at Legal Times . Phillip Dubé is an attorney at D.C.’s Covington & Burling.

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