501 N. Randolph St.
Arlington, VA 22203
PRICE $$ ($13-$20)
HOURS Open for lunch and dinner daily
NVM AWARDS None
NEARBY METRO Orange(Ballston-MU) Orange(Virginia Sq-GMU)
By Warren Rojas
Though his restaurant continues to serve disparate dining factions, Tutto Bene owner Orlando Murillo remains single-minded of purpose: keep the customers coming back.
Murillo’s former bosses, the proprietors of the then-budding Italian Oven chain, sold the Ballston spot to Murillo, who subsequently rebranded it Tutto Bene in August 1988. And for the past 20 years, he’s done everything possible to keep the business going—including courting both pasta-seeking patrons and the now-vibrant Bolivian market.
But that wasn’t always the case.
Murillo says there wasn’t much demand for Bolivian cuisine when he first took over, so he elected to stick with the familiar Italian concept, particularly since: 1) the restaurant had already cultivated a decent following after six years in business, and 2) then-Washington Post food critic Phyllis C. Richman had already fingered them as a reputable pasta palace.
As he built inroads within the local Bolivian community, Murillo’s South-American supporters pressed him to showcase their native cuisine.
“Everyone was asking me why I didn’t add Bolivian food on the menu,” he says of the grassroots campaign that ultimately led to his slinging saltenas on the side.
Once he opened that door, his Bolivian clients began clamoring for more traditional dishes. And other local food critics soon added their voices to the choir.
In April 2001 The Washington Post hit the streets with their “The Saltena Circuit” write-up, a cross-cultural nod that ushered a new wave of curiosity-seekers his way.
“That was the opening for many Americans,” Murillo says, noting that that same Saturday morning, 20 people were lined up at his door with the review in hand. Shortly thereafter, he says Washingtonian and Zagat’s joined the fold.
To this day, the restaurant looks very much like it did when Murillo first made the leap from staff to management—but with a few obvious improvements.
The main dining room is definitely showing its age (dull chandeliers, faded frescos, cracked floor tiles), but manages to stay just on this side of the well-lived-in/totally played-out pendulum.
Worn wood tables are draped in standard white tablecloths (which are, in turn, covered with plate glass to ward off astronomical laundry bills from stray sauce spills). Soft music plays in the background. And a snapshot of Jamie Escalante—the hardnosed Bolivian math teacher who inspired “Stand and Deliver,” the late ‘80s biopic starring Edward James Olmos—hangs prominently on one wall as a sign of Bolivian solidarity. Murillo nearly doubled his serving capacity (to nearly 190 seats) in 2000 by adding a dance-friendly facility—the restaurant hosts salsa bands and other Latin musical acts most weekends—featuring an expansive bar, Roman columns, in addition to a semi-private dining room.
Murillo estimates that roughly half his customers are repeat locals and friends. “They are families I’ve known since my service days,” he says of his most devoted regulars.
Bonds that were most likely forged with the help of some homespun Italian favorites.
One terrific loyalty-builder is the half-portion pasta option, a sampling-friendly solution that makes everyday dining/occasional experimentation a breeze. A semi-regular lunch buffet (available from Wednesday through Friday) rolls out rotating hot-bar offerings, while the rest of the Italian menu is mostly dominated by mixed protein plates (beef, chicken, fish; all with sides of pasta or vegetables).
A crowd-pleaser of a calzone arrives stuffed with more sliced sausage (hearty rounds of zesty pork), tangy marinara and molten cheese—the precious ricotta and mozzarella payload oozing out from every corner—than you might find on a full-size pizza served elsewhere.
The milanese Napoletana delivers breaded veal shrouded in ham and melted mozzarella (stretches from stem to stern and drips over the sides) and nestled in a thin, herb-laden marsala sauce that contrasts against the cheesy richness while lending a homey/natural undercurrent to the meat. The marsala reemerges, though noticeably sweeter after spending some time with Portobello mushrooms (sop up the wine well and deliver added meatiness to the dish), in a platter built around pounded chicken filets.
Over a half-dozen jumbo clams peer back at you from a well-executed linguine dish, each bivalve steeped in white wine and herbs while the noodles battle to cling to their butter-garlic base (marvelous).
Ravioli alla panna summons largish noodles filled with spinach and musty gorgonzola (a well-aged winner), all smothered in heavy cream sauce further bulked up by grated parmesan cheese (dairy-rich to a fault). Broad manicotti noodles envelop a spinach-ricotta core swimming in a hybrid house sauce (light cream, a smidge of cheese and plenty of tomato).
Additionally, all main courses are accompanied by a side of spaghetti marinara well worthy of individual attention (robust ragout is all garlic, onion and fleshy tomato bits).
According to Murillo, other top sellers include: a pan-seared, 14-ounce Chilean sea bass paired with steamed vegetables, a flash-grilled veal chop, spaghetti al gamberetto (featuring white wine-doused jumbo shrimp) and linguine Cleopatra (traditional seafood medley over pasta).
“All the pasta dishes are very well received,” he says of their core lineup.
And while he’s fairly convinced the Bolivian side probably brings in more new business—they sell approximately 3,000 saltenas per week, though the Andean pastries have long since graduated from weekend-only novelty to standard lunch fare as well—Murillo says the Italian cuisine remains the bedrock of his success.
“Italian food is always available at any hour,” he stresses.