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Editorial Review

In pursuit of good Italian?
Stop at Girasole, in Virginia’s hunt country
By Tom Sietsema
September 26, 2010

For the past five years, and always on my way to other restaurants, I’ve been driving past Girasole in Virginia’s hunt country. Such a handsome spread, I thought as my eyes took in a two-story dwelling in the tiny Fauquier County town of The Plains. Such happy-looking faces leaving the place, I mentally noted. Such rustic background music, I observed at least once, when a train rumbled by mere yards from the setting, near where I was idling.

Then off I’d go, to someplace I figured was more important.

Prompted by a fan of the Italian restaurant, I made Girasole my destination rather than my drive-by this summer. What I found was a place that reflects the family that cares for it, and breads, pastas and desserts with a personal touch (most are made in-house).

The menu doesn’t immediately register as anything special. White bean soup, linguine with clams and veal scalloppine aren’t exactly a siren call to book a table in the countryside. Girasole’s chef and owner, Louis Patierno, acknowledges as much when he says the choices are mostly “the generic things people expect to see” at an Italian restaurant.

They might sound simple on paper, but some of those dishes are alluring. Little did I know, for instance, that one of the best fritto mistos in recent memory is about 60 minutes from downtown Washington, at a place that takes its name from the Italian word for sunflower. Even a half-order of the entree delivers enough lightly fried scallops, shrimp, mussels and zucchini for two to share. Just squeeze on some lemon juice, and you have yourself a golden feast. Proof that not all fried mozzarella is created equal is Girasole’s lightly breaded appetizer, which breaks open to a rush of white lava. Fried parsley leaves and anchovy butter are just the jolts to kick-start the dish. Patierno smokes his own local trout, presented with minced onions and briny capers, and although it’s billed as a first course, it could stand in as a light (and winning) entree. If you trawled for your meal only from the fish and seafood choices, you could be happy; clams with linguine are pleasantly garlicky and zippy with red pepper flakes, while baby octopus is bright with lemon juice and heartier with chickpeas. But thin slices of sauteed veal, fragrant with sage and served on a nest of tasty spinach, provide a delicious reason to go aground. (Too bad there’s but a single dauphine potato gracing the entree.)

That said, what also endears Girasole to me is its many specials, which are described by the servers. Amazingly, none of the staff reads off notes — no small feat when there typically are a dozen specials to talk up.

Veering from the standing script might reward diners with floppy ravioli stuffed with chunks of tender lamb, cloaked in a dusky yellow curry sauce and sprinkled with golden raisins. Or tube-shaped, tomato-sauced cannelloni hiding soft ground veal in their centers. If trout is on the spoken menu, go fish. You might get lucky, as I did recently, with a skin-on sauteed trout splayed on its plate with crisp green beans and a bite of boiled potato. A dusting of crushed pistachios and splashes of lemon-butter sauce embellish the fish.

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