Baltimore Italian vs. Washington Italian: Then & Now
- Joe May 26, 2001 11:14 PM
Tonight my wife and I had dinner at Boccaccio's in Little Italy in Baltimore. This is the fourth restaurant we've eaten at in Little Italy over the past two years and the best.
It pales sadly in comparison to Obelisk in D. C.
I first ate at Maria's 300 in Little Italy in 1970. Then Baltimore was well ahead of D. C. in Italian. For me veal pizziaola was a revelation and salads that had more than one kind of lettuce were a delicious curiosity. Shaving parmesan at the table? I had never seen it done before.
But over the years Washington has grown up with several restaurants that can compete with the best in America and, in the case of the 40 seat Obelisk, as good as some of the better in Italy perhaps as good as several Michelin one and two stars I have eaten in.
My wife and I were suppose to go to New York today and had booked a table at Il Mullino two months ago. With the trip cancelled we wanted a serious meal. Obelisk was booked. Laboratorio unavailable. Goldoni and Teatro Goldono and Etrusco very good but not over the top. Then we thought, why not Baltimore's best? I was also curious at just how far Baltimore had evolved in its Italian sophistication considering that at one time it really had been light years ahead of D. C. I eliminated Tratorria Alberto in Glen Burnie for various reasons (as I had also eliminated Tyson's Corner new Maestro since last Saturday night when I stopped in to see their menu at 9:30PM and it was almost empty!)
The 250 seat Boccaccio had time open all evening for a reservation. We chose 6:15 and headed north.
The wine list was fairly good: among others it had '97 Solaia ($250 bottle) and a '98 Fontodi Chianti at a reasonable $48. The eight ounce wine glass was too small for the wine to allow it to breathe, I was also afraid to swirl it for fear of spilling it on the table cloth.
Beef carpaccio at $12 was all right. (The shavings of reggiano on this proved to me though that not all Reggiano is created equal-some is shaved hours in advance of when it is needed and dries out.) Similar to what I had two weeks ago at Bonaroti in Vienna. Only three dollars more. My wife's shrimp with garlic, oil and parsley was fairly good: only $12.95 for the three frozen 21-30 count shrimp. Penne with vodka/cream/tomato sauce was every bit as good as Rao's $10.99 a bottle. Here it actually seemed reasonable at $17.95. It could have come from a bottle also.
For entrees we both had specials: osso buco for $22.95 that was terrible, absolutely no flavor and instead of risotto milanese there was boxed saffron rice that was mushy. My veal "breast" was actually quite good but for $32.95 it should have been. But it was not outstanding.
The desserts were actually another matter. Both were better than we expected especially the panne cotta which was excellent by any standard.
I should note that the service was superb. The waiter was friendly, experienced and very attentive. My only criticism is that each course was served IMMEDIATELY after removing the previous. There was not more than 60 seconds between one plate leaving and another appearing until dessert. This is the first time that I've ever actually felt rushed to get through a meal! Usually I complain because I have to wait too long not that I'm being hustled so the next group can sit down.
After the meal and the $200.00 check I remembered that Obelisk at $55.00 prix fixe with a similar $48.00 wine and D. C. 10% tax and a 15% tip was actually EXACTLY THE SAME AMOUNT OF MONEY. The three hour multi course meal at Obelisk is infinitely more enjoyable than the 75 minute sprint at Boccaccio. For shear pleasure at experiencing absolutely delicious, creative dishes there is no comparison.
For anyone reading this I now understand why Obelisk reserves one month in advance for weeknights and Boccaccio had numerous open times on a Saturday night.
Boccaccio like the other Baltimore Italians has stood aside with time while others such as Obelisk in D. C. have made great strides.
It's a shame really because when I was much younger going to Little Italy was a big deal.
But no more.
During our 4 years in Baltimore, my friends and I have never had a great meal in Little Italy. The food ranged from okay to sad and the prices were always upwards of $40/person for a split appetizer, an entree, a glass of wine, and no dessert or coffee. I hate to say this, but we were happier going to the Cheesecake Factory down the street. At least there you expect mundane food but you don't get robbed to boot.
I think 97% of Baltimore's Little Italy is over-rated but there were a few places I think were fine (I won't use the word "great" which is reserved for the very best dining experiences around the world). Out of curiosity, which restaurants in Little Italy did you try in the 4 years of Baltimore?
To be honest, I had completely forgotten the names of the places I've tried in Little Italy until Joe's post. We gave Sabatino's several chances. It should have stopped after the first visit, but we were trying to figure out why it was always crowded. My most vidid memory of the food there was spending the evening picking out shards of clam shell from my pasta.
We also gave Boccaccio and Vellegia's 2 chances each. I have no recollection of the food at either place.
To tell you the truth, most of my food experiences in Baltimore were pretty dissappointing. There were a few exceptions though--my favorite being the escargots in a garlic cream sauce that was served in a light flakey pastry crust at Jeannier's.
I think someone mentioned a 3% of the restaurants in Little Italy being decent. Any names?
A decent/good restaurant in Little Italy is Germano's.
Sabatino's is horrible. I had one of the worst meals of my life there last summer, and can't believe we were suckered into going. Very mealy mushy veal. Rubbery seafood. Need I say more??
Not a good time, but the place was packed.