We first ate at Tauraso's in 1988, about a year after it opened. We liked it. It was better than average, nothing stupendous, not a knock-your-eyes-out find, but the food was pleasant. One to 10, we gave it a 6 1/2 , and thought about the extenuating circumstances. We'd found the dining room closed, and ate instead in Tauraso's casual front room, called Victor's Bar & Saloon. There, we sat at a small table, heard loud music, looked at the backs of people at the bar, and at raw brick.
Since then, other people have written about other dinners thereFantastic. Best food in Maryland. We kicked ourselves for being blind. Had the chef blossomed into something unusual and rare? We felt we'd done him wrong, not having noticed his promise. And now, 2 1/2 years later, we went back to rectify matters. One problem: To us, it still looks 6 1/2 out of 10. Pleasant. Better than average.
This time we achieved the dining room, though, and what a likable dining room it is, with its oak doors, mauve paisley wallpaper, and Japanese lacquer-red pipes against an indigo ceiling. We were almost its only occupants, locals seeming to prefer Victor's, but solitude has its advantages, making it easy to look unself-consciously at the large, turn-of-the-century, ornately framed pictures.
Neither the menu nor the prices have changed since spring 1988. Seafood specials are printed on a photocopied sheet. The general drift of food preparation is Italian: antipasti, calamari, pastas, a house focaccia and sweets including cannoli and tortoni.
Four of us shared three appetizers: grilled polenta with Gorgonzola and Romano ($4.95), Tauraso's original seafood ,X sausage ($5.25) and fresh mozzarella with olive oil, basil and grilled focaccia ($5.95). The cheese in the polenta (boiled, cooled, sliced cornmeal) gave it flavor and a pleasingly molten consistency, which was underlined by the rich but not overpowering Gorgonzola sauce. To the side, however, we found an odd, puzzling mixture that looked and tasted like tomato skins stirred into tomato paste. Tomato skins?
The seafood sausage could as well have been made from pork. Perhaps the chef makes it from seafood because seafood sounds healthier. Oily, loaded with green and red peppers and tomato, and pushy with sausage spice, it was a cheerful collection of bites, but without the subtle flavors of fish and shellfish.
We enjoyed the mozzarella, which was indeed fresh, and therefore milky and cool, though saltless even at the edge. To the side were strips of charred, skinned pimento and an oiled, grilled wedge of the house focaccia, an Italian bread whose proper nature is more rustic than Tauraso's fluffy version. As the house bread, it had been dull; but grilled, it was likable.
Salads were good compositions of fresh romaine and oak-leaf lettuce, lightly dressed. While including a pepperoncini, some marinated onion, a slice of cucumber, a wedge of tomato and wonderful, pungent Mediterranean olives, they still seemed to have the virtue of a simple, uncluttered salad. Blue cheese on a mixed salad ($1.95) cost an additional 75 cents, which wasn't mentioned on the menu.
Our inexpensive entrees were not as good as our expensive ones. Fettuccine with grilled shrimp, tomatoes and fresh basil ($11.95) was excessively oily, though the pasta had some character and the shrimp were firm. The presentation of the Long Island duck breast ($14.95) was handsome -- two enfolded rows of thin-sliced breast laid neatly over a raspberry sauce. However, a layer of fat crowned each slice, and the duck was tough, which made the accompanying steak knife essential. In addition, the raspberry sauce was partly a meat sauce tasting marginally burned.
By contrast, a delicious entree of rockfish, skin on, with a lovely pesto sauce paired with a light tomato cream ($18.95) was bettered only by a slice of grilled Norwegian salmon ($19.95), set over fresh spinach in a butter lemon sauce enhanced by sliced, )) sauteed leeks.
Our one refined dessert, a chocolate mousse cake ($3.95), was as uninteresting as it had been 2 1/2 years before. However, though the blueberries in a cobbler ($4.95) tasted canned or frozen and bland, we admired the homemade short crust that crowned it. We also liked a grandmotherly assembly of cake, apricot jam and creme anglaise called a trifle ($3.50) (but not a trifle).
A 1986 bottle of Acacia Madonna pinot noir ($33.50) was well worth remembering. *
Tauraso's, 6 East St., Everedy Square, Frederick, (301) 663-6600
Hours: Lunch Mondays to Saturdays 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; dinner Mondays to Thursdays 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays until 11 p.m., Sundays 2 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Accepts: All major credit cards
Features: Seafood, Italian and vegetarian cooking
Next: Uncle Lee's,