Lovingly Prepared

Two local restaurants specialize in cuisine perfect for Valentine's Day or any day.

Valentine’s Day is an opportunity to tell your cherished one those all-important words: "I love you." It’s an annual reminder to show appreciation for someone special in your life.

For me, Valentine’s Day is especially meaningful, because seventeen years ago, my husband—swept away by cupid’s arrow, perhaps—got down on one knee to propose. Needless to say, it was the best Valentine’s Day ever.  

You may not be planning anything quite that memorable this year, but do celebrate your love by sharing a meal together. And, it doesn’t have to be on Feb. 14 with all the other amateurs. Go out this weekend, or any day after Valentine’s Day.

In honor of this holiday, I present two restaurants—both places where any night feels like a celebration—where food is lovingly prepared, and the staff triumphs with exceptional hospitality.

Arucola in Chevy Chase, DC

Ask any resident of Chevy Chase, Washington, DC, and they are likely to say they’ve been to Arucola Osteria Italiana…several times. The coziness of this Italian bistro on Connecticut Avenue between Morrison and McKinley streets NW beckons the locals for a casual evening of wood-fired pizzas and homemade pastas. Even on a busy night, you and your companion will be able to hear one another. Your glass will be refilled, your freshly-baked bread bowl will be endless, your needs will be attended to and the feeling of genuine warmth will be exuded by the entire staff.

Ask to be seated downstairs, and—if possible—close to the open kitchen where you will marvel at the skill of the chefs stretching and kneading the fresh dough for your pizza. Select from one of Arucola’s 23 signature pizzas or design your own from the 33 toppings.

I tried the Margherita pizza, because I wanted to experience the quality of their undressed pizza. I was impressed. The sauce was a sweet and piquant tomato, the fresh mozzarella gooey and hot, the crust had charred edges with puffy pillows of air inside. This is the place to share pizzas—that way you’ll get to try more than one.

Arucola’s house salad is a mountain of green leafy lettuces, drizzled with a tangy balsamic dressing. Their gnocchi was a disappointment—too dense—and the bright green pesto was a bit oily. I would stick to their red sauces, because it’s Valentine’s Day, and I’m told their spaghetti and meatballs are addictive.

What is most appealing about Arucola is the comfortable neighborhood atmosphere. And, you’ll have enough money left over to treat yourselves to a box of Godiva.

Olazzo in Bethesda

If you’ve been to on Norfolk Avenue in the Woodmont Triangle, chances are you enjoyed yourself. The staff’s congeniality and the imaginative kitchen helps Olazzo stand above humdrum or chain Italian restaurants. They specialize in a wide array of pastas, but the staff invites you to mix and match ingredients—they’ll honor just about any personal preference.   

Like Arucola, this Italian bistro is intimate and cozy.  Because it’s so popular, sometimes you’ll find Olazzo crowded, tight and a bit loud. The restaurant interior is very cozy—it only seats 45 people—but the manager informed us they are expanding in April by annexing the space next door. This will increase their seating by 35 seats. They assure us the atmosphere will remain intimate by leaving a wall between the two dining rooms with a doorway in-between.

Whether you come for lunch or dinner, the servings are hearty. The sandwiches at lunch are simple and flavorful, as are the salads.

At dinner, two nights a week Olazzo offers diners an extra attraction—Monday is half-price-bottle-of-wine night, and Tuesday is $5-martini night. That, according to our server, is one reason business is booming here.

The other reasons are the consistent food, and enthusiastic, warm service. Like Arucola, the team works to complement one another. Everyone knows his job, and does it well, in synchronicity.

First, your servers arrive with a basket of crusty bread and pour a fresh plate of aged balsamic vinegar and olive oil for dipping. The main courses come with a lightly-dressed, mixed-green salad. But, the star of this show is pasta. My favorite is the gnocchi with Bolognese sauce—the sauce consists of chopped, sautéed carrots, celery, veal, pancetta and pork, over a gnocchi made of ricotta cheese rather than potato—it’s softer and floats like a pillow over the Bolognese.

We tried their signature dish—Chicken Cardinale—penne bathed in a rich tomato sauce, punched up with garlic, sweet sun-dried tomatoes and slices of breaded chicken. (Ask for the breaded Milanese chicken rather than the roasted chicken.) Although it’s a crowd-pleaser on a cold night, a little goes a long way. A few bites are enchanting, but if you order Cardinale pasta, be sure you’re very hungry, would like to have leftovers, or plan to share.

Prefer something lighter? Try the fettuccini with sausage and peppers—chunks of succulent sausage with yellow and red peppers lightly mingled in olive oil. For a dish that’s very fresh, light and healthy, order the grilled eggplant aglio ed olio—linguini topped with large slices of grilled eggplant, roasted red peppers, fresh buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil leaves, all sprinkled with a sweet and tangy drizzle of sweet olive oil.       

If you're too full to order dessert (as I was), you and your sweetie can break into your box of Lindt chocolates late in the evening.

What I like best about these two restaurants is their neighborhood feeling. Dining at Arucola or Olazzo makes a couple believe that anytime is Valentine's Day.

Arucola in Chevy Chase, DC

5534 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC (202-244-1555)

Olazzo in Bethesda

7921 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda, MD (301-654-9496)



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