'Every time I read things about restaurants, they are always terrible," reads a letter I received in December. "I eat out a lot but this place [Aldo's, in Fallston, Harford County,] is our best!! 4 stars. This restaurant has been there for 10 years. Not many people know about it, because they don't advertise at all. . . . This kind gentleman named Aldo is not only a great cook but such a gentleman. . . . Some restaurants are better, much better than others! No one ever knows about these places."
What's this? A good, undiscovered osso bucco out there? Golden risottos? Let me try them so I can spread the word.
Fallston is southwest of Bel Air. We drove north on Interstate 95, west on Route 152, and after crossing Route 1, turned left at the third traffic light, from which we saw Aldo's, next door to Josef's Country Inn.
Vaguely lit, the room was marginally gloomy. Nonetheless, it seemed amiable because of all the families dining together, perhaps rewarding themselves for a week's work with a Friday night out. Waitresses recognized people as they came in: We came to think Aldo's thrives on "regulars," whose habits are known and whose tastes are evidently satisfied. Physically, what's remarkable besides the relative darkness are the several rows of framed, modern posters that cover the walls, all of them showing price markdowns.
In choosing appetizers, we skipped what didn't seem Italian -- mozzarella sticks, buffalo wings and escargot -- in favor of a bowl of pasta and fagioli soup ($2.50), what were called children's portions of tortellini ($6.95) and pasta with pesto sauce ($6.50). My Italian companion pooh-poohed the soup, but it seemed to me pleasant. The broth was not commercial in taste, which is to say, it wasn't heavily salted or artificially intense, and a light, natural chicken broth containing white beans and macaroni gives cheerful, undisguised nutrition.
The tortellini were tough and chewy, and filled with a dark, unidentifiable paste, but somewhat redeemed by a light, uncomplicated sauce of tomato puree stirred into a fresh cheese on the order of a low-fat ricotta. That it was not cloyingly rich was a virtue. The green fettuccine mixed with pesto had shape and substance. For my taste there was too much oily sauce, but the perfume of basil in the air was a pleasure at the table.
House salads were part of the dinner. They consisted principally of fresh, cut romaine leaves, in dressings which seemed directed to mass-production tastes. Our waitress said that Aldo makes them, but I'm betting he didn't bring the recipes from his native Calabria. The house Italian was gritty with granulated cheese and dried herbs; both French and blue cheese dressings were sweet and thick.
For entrees we ordered chicken piccata ($13.75), veal francese ($14.50) and zuppa capricciosa ($19.50). Most entrees were in the $13-$15 range, but a few reached $20 and beyond. The chicken dish was simple. Dry, pale oblongs of chicken breast, lightly covered in a cooked egg batter, were set at intervals across green pasta sauced with slightly thickened chicken broth.
The veal francese suffered from a thin coat of harshly seasoned, fine-ground bread crumbs, and from a sauce of thickened chicken broth too bold with the acid of lemon juice. Our most expensive entree was unquestionably our best and prettiest: seafood in a light, likable broth in a large, shallow copper pan. There were chunks of white fish, some clams, half a lobster tail, and mussels, together with an abundance of potato cut into long rectangles.
From among a plate of dessert cakes, we chose a chocolate mousse cake ($3.50), which piled a dilute mousse over an American-style, airy cake. We preferred a cannoli ($2.75) that curled a fresh, crispy wrapper around an oozy sweet cheese cream.
Did some of the evening's awkwardnesses follow from our not being "regulars"? We received our first courses nearly an hour after we'd arrived; we waited a very long time between courses, and though our waitress reassured us we were in a non-smoking section, we were seated adjacent to two tables of heavy smokers. Yet we'd arrived early in the evening, and tables further into the non-smoking section remained unoccupied all evening long. Also, we found the kitchen out of minestrone, out of beef braciola, "a traditional dish" of "lean beef stuffed with many special ingredients," out of Barolo red wine, and indeed out of all red wines, except house wines and a Louis Martini merlot. Were we asking for what "regulars" never want?
We drank an inexpensive Cortese di Gavi ($12) with our meal, but when we saw most regular customers drinking carafes of house wine, we tried a half-carafe of the red ($4.75). The bottled wine was significantly better. *
Aldo's, 2402 Pleasantville Road, Fallston, 879-5000
Hours: Tuesdays to Thursdays 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays until midnight, Sundays 2 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Accepts: * /- **
Features: Italian cooking
No-smoking section: Yes
Wheelchair access: Yes