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Some of the best restaurants in town are right under your nose — the ones you pass by every day on the way to the office but for some reason never check out. Spezie, a superior and steady Italian restaurant, falls in that category for some. It’s at 1736 L St. N.W., just off Connecticut Avenue near the Metro, and when I mentioned it to friends and colleagues in the area, a lot said, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen it. Never been there.” Spezie also may be overshadowed by Morton’s, its behemoth neighbor in the glass-wrapped Washington Square building. But its proximity to Morton’s may not be a bad thing: At Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, I am told, Spezie is often a close second choice to Morton’s if lunchmates aren’t in a hunka-beef mood. The result is that Spezie does a brisk lunch business, even though it’s easy to pass by and you don’t often read about it in the gossip columns. Spezie is well worth a visit, and now is the best time to go. On warm days they throw open the front panels and the darkly decorated bar space is transformed into a breezy alfresco oasis on L Street. The main dining room behind the bar is where the daily lunch scene unfolds. Its decor is also subdued, but not gloomy. Sconces adorned with herb sprigs (Spezie means “spice” in Italian) offer muted lighting that sets a quiet, elegant tone. Two pluses hit you right away when you enter: The tables are well spaced for conversation, and whatever conversation is taking place never seems to escalate to a din. This is a civilized restaurant where you can talk, listen, and relax. And even better, when you sit down, the waiter won’t tell you his name. The waiters here are professional and correct. They also appear when needed. The first food you’ll encounter is a small basket of focaccia and other breads, accompanied not by butter or olive oil but by a ramekin of olive tapenade. It’s a good opening for the meal to come. The menu reveals an array of updated Italian classics, tilting toward seafood. During my recent visits the only specials of the day were fish dishes. Meats are not slighted, however, with the menu offering a good selection of veal and chicken entrees and even a token filet mignon. But a lot of not-to-miss dishes beckon long before you get to meat and fish. One star is the watercress salad, a sculpted tangle of watercress whose snap and tang are heightened by a Caesar dressing and tiny, garlicky croutons. In its simplicity and sharpness, it could be the best salad in town. Among the antipasti, a favorite is grilled polenta topped by a wild mushroom ragout. The polenta is done just right and does nothing to interfere with the earthiness of the mushrooms. It is a simple preparation that showcases the mushrooms beautifully. As an unrepentant pastaholic, I tried several pasta dishes at Spezie and was never disappointed. They can be ordered in full or half-portions. Once when I was ordering both a pasta and a main course, the waiter kindly offered to make the pasta a half-portion, which may have cut into the bottom line but wins loyalty. The chef offers a satisfying homemade ravioli stuffed with porcini mushrooms and ricotta, complemented by a whimsical pistachio cream sauce that takes on the yellow-greenish hues of pistachios. Spezie has mastered several classic tomato-sauced pastas, and on the cream-sauce end of the spectrum, one very good choice incorporates tiny bay scallops and small bits of artichoke. If you make it past the pastas to an entree, try the fish. Most are grilled to perfection, complete with the quadrillage (grill marks) that seems impossible to replicate at home. A recent special, grilled halibut, was simple and unadorned, with a hint of basil atop a bed of lightly cooked cherry tomatoes and green beans. Desserts too are a treat at Spezie. If you like hazelnut as much as I do, there is nothing better than Spezie’s hazelnut cake, topped with hazelnut mousse and a hazelnut-chocolate sauce. Sorbets are vibrant, and both tiramisu and cr�me br�l�e transcend their tired history. Spezie resides in a space that used to see restaurants come and go, including, most memorably, 21 Federal a few years back. But Spezie seems to have outlasted them all. It was opened in late 2001 by Enzo Livia, whose first restaurant in the area is the acclaimed Il Pizzico in Rockville, Md. His fidelity to simplicity, good ingredients, and steady service has turned Spezie into a downtown mainstay that deserves more attention than it gets. Tony Mauro can be contacted at [email protected]. In addition to covering the Supreme Court, he has written about food and restaurants for nearly 30 years.

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