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Apr 15, 2014 06:53 AM

The best Italian restaurant in Baltimore is a bakery: Piedigrotta

Visit this pasticceria for two reasons, the tiramisu and the food. First, the food:
Mrs. Ianniccone is a solid, capable Italian cook and her dishes taste as if they come right from her kitchen, which they do. This is all her accomplished home cooking here; there is no food service industry taste or sameness to these meals. I come here for lunch and my favorite is her eggplant parmesian. The eggplant is perfectly cooked; it is not soggy or mushy, it is slightly al dente but not tough, raw or chewy. It is perfectly seasoned with her tomato sauce and just the right amount of luscious baked cheese, good quality mozzarella. The tomato sauce always has that balance between natural tomato sweetness and just a hint of tomato sharpness without erring into either extreme.
Words cannot describe how light and fluffy are Mrs. Iannaccone’s gnocchi. If you have never eaten gnocchi, these are the ones to try, but they will spoil you for any other gnocchi, from that point on. The sauce is the same, simple but well done tomato sauce. It may not have the zing! of restaurant tomato sauces or be ‘gussied up’ with bits of onions, pepper, or meat. In fact, I cannot tell if it is a meat-based sauce or not. It is obviously Mrs. Ianniconne’s standby, and for good reason: it is dependable, subtle and delicious without being overpowering. I have also had her cheese tortellini; it is mixed with peas and artichoke and it is also enjoyable. Her vegetable lasagna is a bit more like her frittata, only it has lasagna noodles in it. It holds together wonderfully and has great texture; one can see in the serving area that it is not a ‘falling apart’ vegetable lasagna that suffers from hunks of vegetable and runny sauce. She obviously has worked out a successful formula to hold her vegetable lasagna together with a cheese/egg matrix; it is not too cheesy and maybe a little eggy. It is slightly bland for my taste, but I enjoy it with a little salt and pepper on top. Another simple understated dish that shows Mrs. Ianniccone’s mastery as a cook is her rapini. This vegetable always has perfect doneness; avoiding the twin faults of raw or mushy is difficult to do time after time, but you can depend upon her. It is also seasoned perfectly. The caponata is nicely flavorful. It is a little oily but most caponata are. It would be nice to have a small roll to sop up a bit of the oil afterwards as sort of a guilty pleasure. In fact, this is the only fault that I can find in this delicious establishment: as a bakery, they do not have small dinner rolls available to eat along with lunch or dinner. After enjoying so many lunches, I brought my wife here for dinner. They offer a five-entrée plate for two. We had the gnocchi, rapini, veggie lasagna and we also enjoyed the mussels risotto and the meat lasagna (picture above). The risotto was masterfully done; it was just the right balance between creaminess and the very slight chewiness that marks a perfectly cooked risotto. Another nice thing is that all of the entrees are visible in their serving dishes, very much like a family-style buffet. You can look over the entire selection of what is available for your dining, give in to intrigue and temptation, and they will portion it out for you, heat it up and serve it in a very few minutes. Piedigrotta does not serve wine or beer, but you are welcome to bring your own.
The owner, Carminantonio Ianniccone, already had made his mark as a chef and restaurateur in Treviso, Italy at the time the restaurant, ‘Le Beccherie’ began offering tiramisu in 1970 . Mr. Ianniconne will tell you that it was he and his brother who invented and supplied the restaurant with tiramisu. This story does stand up to moderate investigation, although no records exist to prove it. This account has been written up in the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Post and, most importantly, in The Rosengarten Report (Issue 49, September 2006), where Mr. Iannicoone gives David Rosengarten his recipe for tiramisu. I have made this recipe, and it comes out just like Mr. Ianniconne’s pasticceria tiramisu: pure, fresh, sincere, delicious. Having made it, I know exactly what is in it. Iit tastes of the fresh milk, fresh cream, lemon, fresh eggs, good quality mascarpone and good quality sweet Marsala wine from which it is made, and, of course, from espresso, sugar and ladyfingers. You will not taste food-service creams or thickeners here. These are the simple, honest layers of sweet espresso-moistened ladyfingers, zabaglione, crema pasticcera and whipped cream that speak for themselves; no chocolate-coated coffee beans need apply. You can buy small, medium and large trays of tiramisu here. Sometimes the ladyfingers are a little too dry for my taste but I am aware of the dangers of having them fall apart if too soppy, which they never are.

I do not come here for the breads, but there are many types here, as well as other Italian pastries that I have enjoyed: pignoli cookies, ‘lobster tails’, sfogliatelle, sticky buns, biscotti, Neapolitan pastries, many cookies, cakes and cheesecake.
There are only one or two other diners present when I go for lunch and it is not because I am wrong about the food. This pasticceria suffers from being removed from Baltimore’s Little Italy and the tourist-packed area of the East Bay by four or five industrial blocks, which are an effective barrier against being discovered by strolling tourists and locals. It is a short, reasonable walk from the northwest border of the packed cheek-by-jowl inferior eating establishments of the Little Italy neighborhood and only one block away (west) from the free bus Orange Line stop. To hear Mr. Ianniccone tell it, his pasticceria has been a labor of love, not for money or fame, for the past twelve years and it seems to be the sixth or seventh restaurant he has owned. He seems to be happy right where he is and I hope that this notice attracts only respectful, appreciative patrons to Piedigrotta Bakery.

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  1. Thanks for the review. I have enjoyed the pignoli cookies and sfogliatelle and been told about the food. I look forward to trying the eggplant parmesan and gnocchi from your descriptions.

    1. A second for this mash note to Cafe Piedigrotta. I have actually had breakfast, lunch and dinner there (not all on the same day) and it is very good. It is not perfect (I'm talking to you, wan iceberg lettuce salad for dinner, and to you, overbreaded, cold-in-the-middle panino for lunch), but it is very good. And the pastries are standout.

      Best Italian in Baltimore? No, that is Cinghiale.

      1 Reply
      1. re: lawhound

        (picture is eggplant parmesian at Piedigrotta)
        Yes. Cinghale is also the best Italian restaurant in Baltimore. How to reconcile that? Easy. Cinghale serves cosmopolitan restaurant-style Northern Italian food while Piedigrotta serves farmhouse, country food. Can't categorize Mrs. Ianniccone's cooking by region, I think she is eclectic on that score. It is entirely analogous to the 'division' between Cajun cuisine and Creole cuisine in our south (see for a discussion of that topic).

      2. Thanks for the detailed review. I have never tried the hot food but it certainly looks good.

        I did try the pizza once, actually, and it was not good. If you ordered pizza with asparagus for a topping, would you expect the topping to be fat, soggy, tasteless CANNED asparagus? Well, that's what I got, on top of very doughy pizza. Just a big fat miss.

        But the pastries generally rock!

        1 Reply
        1. re: Bob W

          My quip, "I don't go there for the bread" means that I have no appreciation of their breads, at all, and some instinct has decided for me that I would not want to get involved with their pizzas. Thanks for the asparagus observation. I had missed that. The canned asparagus finds its way into several of the casseroles, which, obviously, degrades the quality. I do not have enough familiarity to say anything ... yet, if ever. On a positive note, I only just tried their gelato, after casting a suspicious eye on it for months. I am happy to say that I tried their hazelnut gelato for the first time yesterday and it was delicious - full of flavor. Not as good as the gelato sold in Rome, but pretty darned close!

        2. I can't compare Piedigrotta to other Italian restaurants in Baltimore. But I can say that, although the place looks charming, the food leaves a lot to be desired.

          At lunch, there is a cold case of already prepared foods that can be warmed up for you. They did not look appealing, so I asked about eggplant parmigiana and risotto. They were held in the back.

          The risotto that day was a seafood risotto, and that translated as a lot of mussels and a few tiny shrimp. It had almost no seafood flavor, and the rice was kind of watery and grainy. The eggplant parmagiana was served as a tower. It was nice and mildy pleasurable.

          I had the hazelnut gelato for dessert. It was pretty bad, with little if any natural hazelnut flavor.

          I've had the tiramisu before. It is definitely something to order since it has the pride of being the original. Worth ordering at least once, although I have had better.

          5 Replies
          1. re: Steve

            I am so sorry that you went to a place on my recommendation that you disliked. You say there were a lot of mussels but no seafood flavor. Did you think that they were frozen? They tasted fresh to me. I am sorry that the eggplant parmesian was only a mild pleasure, It is my favorite. You know, we humans see the same colors and we hear the same music but very few will agree on the same tastes in food. I blog on coffee and run into this time and time again. I am trying to find some commonality in our appreciations: regarding the gelato, have you been to Dolcezza in D.C.? I have not had good gelato since returning to the U.S. years ago but Dolcezza was the first good gelato I have had. Piedigrotta's hazelnut was close to that; a little heavier mouth feel, but the flavor was there. I do not think their chocolate is anything special. I am so sorry to suggest to you a place that you did not enjoy.

            1. re: Gastrobuck

              I am not sure if it is just a question of different tastes but maybe expectations. By comparison to Piedigrotta, in S. Philly there is Mr. Joe's Cafe. Run by Termini Brothers, they have a bakery across the street. So here is a bakery serving italian-American food. The menu is very short, and they are not open past 6pm. But the pastas are cooked fresh, not reheated. Hearty Italian-American salads. About the same price for a meal. So much better than Piedigrotta. They got listed in the Phiily Magazine in Best 30 Italian, so right there you see how competitive the market is.

              I have been to Dolcezza. I love the bitter chocolate and the sea salt. Much higher quality than Piedigrotta. The branch I've been to most is Dupont Circle, and they never seem to have much selection there.

              1. re: Steve

                I am glad we agree about Dolcezza; your favorites are also mine. Yes, they are the best so far. I have no doubt that Mr. Joe's is way better than Piedi but it is not in Baltimore. I will go there the next time I am in Philly, however.
                For everyone reading this, I have realized that I place a premium on home-cooked food for sale. I do not like the word, 'homestyle', the 'style' in the word kills it. Even when I ate at an Amish home and enjoyed the practiced skill and the sincerity of the Amish host, there was lacking some hard-to-describe quality of hospitality and it isn't in the setting, it is in the food. A home cook can easily cook 'for the masses', such as when they bring food to a church supper, and that quality is still there. Somehow, the shift from 'preparation' to 'production' results in something being lost. This may be a reaction to constantly eating out and being consistently disappointed in the next new place, or even in boredom with the reliable old place.

                1. re: Gastrobuck

                  A lot of people call that 'soulful' cooking. When it's great, it's my favorite too. My explanation for this is that it's like visiting a massive stone cathedral versus a simple wooden church. One is a testament to showing off and accumulation of wealth, the other is a testament to devotion.

                  1. re: Steve

                    Steve, this is not a gentle invective against our disagreeents over Piedigroota, but it is a continuation of the subtopic on this post about Italian 'soulfood':
                    Today (Easter Sunday) in the New York Times travel section there is an article titled, "In Lecce, Making Magic with Humble Ingredients".
                    The subtitle of the artcle (not present on the above web site) is: "Call it Italian soul food, cucina povera, using fava beans, turnip greens, broccoli rabe and bread crumbs and the like." Just to quote he first two paragraphs:

                    La cucina povera. Often translated as “the food of the poor,” the term seems unlikely to make mouths water or inspire serious foodies to blow their vacation budget on a cooking course.

                    But in and around the city of Lecce, deep in Italy’s heel, a crop of culinary schools and solo cooking teachers is encouraging travelers to embrace this traditionally marginalized food and to master the recipes of the extremely humble (and remarkably resourceful) local fare, which lies far at the other end of the culinary spectrum from haute cuisine.(end of quote


                    Sometimes one's point of view does not get any respect until it is picked up and championed by some celebrity (in this case, the NYT). This is not to say that one is, of course, free to simply not like it, or to disapprove of the use of a microwave. But I dare say that apprecation of Mrs. Ianniccone's cooking requires an eye for what she provides that is just not available in other reastauants as well as expectations that not everything she offers is going to become a repeat repast for us.