For my birthday dinner this year (turned 35 by the way), my husband did some research and picked an old Italian restaurant in Bethesda. When I put Bethesda and Italian food together, I thought ‘fancy’, so I put on my dress and high heels. We parked at a garage, and walked for few minutes, two street lights later, we were standing in front of a non-descript wooden door with a white front and ordinary windows. There was a wooden bench parked in the front with lingering smell of smoke.
Few steps up, and we walked into a little cabin with blue tiles on one side and a door on the other. The door opened to a spacious lobby with rooms on both sides and a kitchen hidden behind a small cashier’s desk. A busy looking, spindly man, was hovering over the cash register, he looked up quickly when we arrived and swiftly took us to our table. I quickly hung my coat on one of the walls and followed my husband, instantly feeling out of place in my high heels and dress.
The walls of the restaurant were painted dark maroon red, an odd color or a restaurant ( I thought), the ceiling were white blocks with fans and hanging lights. There was an eclectic assortment of art on the wall, a picture of a grim looking woman, positively ancient, starting down at us, and three plates of different sizes with splashes of color arranged on the other wall. We were seated against one of the walls, two chairs and a small table, the chairs instead of facing each other were slightly open toward the room, as if we were getting ready to watch a show. And that is how it turned out to be, a show.
A large family of ten plus people with children were seated on the back wall, all happily slopping their spaghetti sauce with pieces of pizza. They were unpretentious and loud and having a good family time and not at all apologetic about it. For a moment, I felt like I was in their dining room, a fly on the wall. The table in front of us filled up with what looked like a rag tag mix of elderly, and from the way they commanded their way into the chairs and talked to the waiter, I felt that they had been frequenting this place long before their hair started turning grey.
As I looked around the room, I saw families and friends, tourists and locals, all talking, all eating, and laughing- and it felt like one big family dining room, all of us, strangers, friends, and family together. And even before I tasted the food, I knew that I will be coming back here just for the ambience even if the food proved to be mediocre.
A strong looking burly no nonsense waiter with a small goatee, came to take our orders. The menu like the rest of the décor looked ancient dressed in bright lipstick red with sparkling gold letters. Inside, the listing was two pages long. I scanned through the prices, not too bad. Since this was my birthday and husband was paying, I decided to go all out and ordered a glass of prosecco, that came with a big basket of thick crusty bread and a cold dish of butter. The bread was alright sopped with a dip of the olive oil set on each table.
Melon wrapped with prosciutto was next, three sheets of prosciutto unceremoniously plopped over a large green slice of melon, nothing fancy. The sweetness of the melon was a perfect backdrop to the saltiness of the prosciutto . A plate of hot fried calamari with a large steam bowl of white bean soup was next. Followed by a plate of white Fontina pizza sliced in uneven shapes and sizes. The pizza was delicious. To finish, we shared a cannoli, the crust was thick crunchy yet soft and the white cream was heavy and slightly sweet. It was a perfect ending to a lovely meal. I stared longingly at the plates of spaghetti at the other tables but I those will have to wait until the next time. On the way out we lingered at the lobby looking at framed awards and reviews, there were several, there was one dating back to the 1970s. We knew that we had discovered an old gem and we will be back for more.
Pines of Rome, 4709 Hampden Ln, Bethesda, MD 20814