Last November, Michael and Cindy Dalesio sold Dalesio's restaurant in Little Italy. Two months ago, with the announcement, "We're back," they opened Michael's Riviera Grill, in the departed JaFe's rooftop space above the Brookshire Hotel. While menus at both Michael's and the present Dalesio's remain very similar thus far, Michael's prices are, dish for dish, uniformly lower by a dollar or two.
In addition, Michael's sells low-key panache, and the giddy pleasure of urban canyons beyond two walls of glass. For watching city day turn to city night, a windowed restaurant 10 floors up in the air is matchless. Over dinner, we savored views of the sky at twilight, the west end of the harbor, the green and pink high-rise to the southeast, and, all around, tall buildings variously illuminated.
We began an early-evening meal with drinks and excellent, egg-glazed house bread, and then ordered grilled peppers ($5.75), scallops avvolgere ($8.50), seafood soup ($4.50) and a half-order of linguine with fresh clams ($8). Half-orders of pastas weren't listed on the menu, but they're served without hesitation, though at more than half-price. An entree-sized plate of linguine and clams was $13.50.
From the beginning we saw strong evidence of the Dalesios' restaurant experience. We also found that such a consummately urbane environment made us fussy. It's not fair, but our surroundings raised our expectations. Otherwise, would we have been disappointed, for example, with the grilled peppers, which, though they glistened colorfully in their oil and particles of anchovy, hadn't been peeled? The purpose of grilling peppers is to pervade them with smokiness, and to incinerate their somewhat indigestible skins. Stripping peels from peppers is a nicety, it's true, but when peppers cost $5.75 in a salad, and everything's handsome, aren't niceties de rigueur?
In the delicious and visually appealing scallop dish, white islands of scallop, thinly wrapped in Scotch salmon, rose from an intensely tarragon sauce, blush-pink with balsamic vinegar. We dipped torn pieces of bread in, to savor the sauce for its own
sake. The seafood soup was not soup, really, but shrimp and fish, together with mussels and clams in their shells, set in a vibrant tomato sauce.
In the half-order of linguine with fresh clams, we were surprised to find whole white cooked cloves of garlic. More restaurants should be so brave. We only argued with the pools of oil in the pasta -- a tasteless oil at that. Olive? If so, the olives were timid, or it was a fourth pressing.
Our waiter said there was one special not listed in the menu, which consisted of two photocopied sheets taped into a brocade book. We appreciated hearing about only one special, and so we ordered it, Buddy's beef ($20), together with three other entrees, seafood Mediterranean ($19.75), saltimbocca alla Romano ($16) and chicken carciofi ($15).
Buddy's beef (named for the man who suggested it, Calman "Buddy" Zamoiski, of the Baltimore Symphony board) was, we thought, the best of the lot: a New York strip steak, tender and pink on the inside, but seared on the grill to give it a dark edge. Topping it was a lovely melange of shiitake mushrooms, green onions, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, shallots and parsley, and all around, a flavorful demi-glace enhancing the flavors of the beef. Marvelous.
Seafood Mediterranean was similar to the seafood soup we'd ordered earlier, though it offered more seafood, much of it carefully arranged in shells set in rows at the edge of the plate. The saltimbocca was better than most, partly because it was made with a forceful cheese instead of a coward's mass-production mozzarella. (Still, it was not fontina, as the menu said, but fontinella, a leaner, harsher skim-milk cheese.) Also, sans pools of oil and/or butter, the veal, prosciutto, cheese and sage shone as an intrinsically interesting combination.
The chicken entree consisted of a fresh, exceptionally tasty breast of chicken strewn with finely diced fontinella and artichoke hearts, and set in a likable, almost caramel-like Marsala sauce. Buddy's beef was served with new potatoes; the others, with an acceptable but undistinguished risotto mixed with tomatoes and raisins. There were also vegetables: baby ears of corn, snow peas and carrot.
We shared two desserts, a marginally pedestrian slice of chocolate mocha cake and a beautiful, creamy cut of cheesecake -- $4.75 each. Finally, we were brought Dalesio's signature -- fresh grapes and provolone -- to nibble while we enjoyed being high up in the air. Michael's looks promising.
Next: The Baltimore Grille
Michael's Riviera Grill
Lombard and Calvert streets
Hours: Breakfast Mondays to Saturdays 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., Sundays 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.; lunch Mondays to Fridays 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Mondays to Thursdays 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays until 11 p.m. and Sundays 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday brunch noon to 3 p.m.
Accepts: All major credit cards
Features: Italian cuisine