Some days I wear egg on my face. I describe food that's been "marvelous . . . delicious . . . refined." Someone else comes away from the same restaurant describing a meal that's been ghastly. I say service was superb. Someone else waits an hour for an entree that, when it arrives, isn't the entree that was ordered. Well, it isn't a science, this business of writing about restaurants. Food's tricky; people are tricky; tastes are tricky. I go to a restaurant once. Maybe I'm lucky. Maybe I'm unlucky. Other people who go the same place are maybe lucky, maybe not.
At Fiori, I tend to be on the medium side of lucky. First time around, two and a half years ago, our meal didn't impress us. Did we order wrong? What does it mean, to order wrong? About a year or so ago, when Fiori moved to the site of the defunct Country Fare Inn, I put it on my list for a visit. A second time -- a first time to Fiori in Owings Mills -- maybe it would be terrific.
Though the building was exhaustively renovated in the '70s, and is surrounded by modern clutter, one has to feel sympathy with a structure that dates to 1767: The old, wide-board floors, stair railings, fireplaces, casement windows, door frames and proportions of a different time influence the atmosphere.
Dress in this setting is casual. Food is Continental and modern Italian -- Italian fitted to American tastes, with an emphasis on pastas and seafood.
We began our meal with a lobster crepe alla Cicala ($6.25), a special; a half-order of tortellini con pollo ($5.50), and a hot calamari salad ($3.75), one of a scattering of dishes marked on the menu as low in cholesterol, salt and calories.
The lobster crepe, the best of the three, was a single crepe that wrapped a small amount of lobster, and was beautifully, delicately bathed in a dried tarragon-infused cream sauce.
Though the tortellini's pasta was thickish, the filling wablessedly real. Yet a very liberally applied Cheddar-strong cream sauce changed a likable, healthy plate of pasta into a dish of cream and cheese, with incidental knots of pasta. While many diners love heavy cream more than they love tortellini, my own preference would be for a gentler, less clotted version.
The tasteless hot calamari salad failed to make the argument fo"heart healthy" food. We tried salting the squid; they wouldn't transform. The menu said it was 140 calories. Since one tablespoon of oil is 120 calories, and we thought we saw at least that much oil saucing a generous 4 ounces of calamari, which TTC my book tells me has 95 calories, we wondered whether the kitchen had calculated accurately, but our real concern was taste: Where was it?
Dressings for the house salads of fresh romaine had vigorous flavors -- plenty of garlic in the thick, house prep- aration, and vibrant blue cheese tastes in the Roquefort.
Our main courses, all competently handled, were grilled tuna ($17.50), tournedos Madagascar ($18) and chicken Scarpariello ($14.25). The tuna steak was simple, pleasant and somewhat dry, as tuna tends to be.
Meat broth, brandy and green peppercorns sauced the two tournedos, which were well trimmed and tender. A steamed potato and a tomato half topped with diced mushrooms were served to the side. The pepperiness of pepperoncini and sausage gave chicken Scarpariello much greater spark than the other two preparations, a spark attractively modified by mushrooms and a base of linguine. With our meal we drank a dry, red Gattinara ($22) that was adequate but not worth remembering.
Our favorite dessert was an interesting cake Fiori ($3.25), handsomely iced with an intense chocolate, and gently textured with a puree of chestnuts. We were delighted by the fresh strawberries in the house trifle, but of course, strawberries, sponge cake, pastry cream and a whipping cream blend aren't what an Englishman would know as a proper trifle. How about a name like "strawberries, cake and creme de profiteroles"?
We liked the light, crisp, thin cookielike wrapper of Fiori's cannoli. Following American custom, the cream was not ricotta; while chocolate chips over the top were amusing, they lacked the refinement of shaved chocolate.
Our waiter was dignified, courteous and attentive without being overly solicitous; middle-range prices struck us as reasonable. In short, we found Fiori's a good, upper-average restaurant. The management experience of the Country Fare Group, which also supervises the Kings Contrivance in Columbia and the Brass Elephant, increases the probability of Fiori's being steady and reliable. *
Next: Cafe des Artistes
Fiori, 100 Painters Mill Road, Owings Mills, 363-3131
Hours: Lunch Mondays to Fridays 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Mondays to Thursdays 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays until 10 p.m., Sundays 4 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Accepts: * /- **
Features: Italian and Continental cuisine
No-smoking area: Yes
Wheelchair access: No