It was prom night when we had dinner at Dici Naz Velleggia. The young diners, with their formal wear and varying states of nervousness, provided the entertainment and the atmosphere, which swung from bittersweet to relieved, depending on one's memories of prom nights past.
But even the brightly passing parade did not distract us from th food, which we found quite good and much better than that we had eaten at Velleggia's in Little Italy about a year ago.
Velleggia's in Towson is a rambling restaurant with a large ba and several dining rooms, some with windows on Joppa Road. The views give the rooms a nice feel, far different from the apartment building hallway by which I had entered.
My husband and I were a bit surprised at the formality o Velleggia's, even without the prom crowd. Most male diners were in suits; they obviously had heeded the sign on the front door that says "Jackets after 5:30 p.m.," even though the tuxedoed maitre d' told us that rule was no longer absolute.
We were a bit surprised, too, after being seated promptly, a having to wait nearly 10 minutes to order cocktails and to see menus. We did, in fact, ask a busboy to find our waitress. Once she appeared -- she had been enveloped by the large prom group at the next table -- she was attentive and knowledgeable. The rest of the evening's service was laudable.
And the folks in the kitchen know what they're doing, too.
The largely Italian menu does bow briefly to those whose taste runaway from this cuisine: crab cakes, steak, prime rib and fresh seafood that can be broiled, prepared Cajun style or francese, with a breading.
We left those offerings for another time and place, and put ou stock in the Italian fare. It paid off.
We each had a Dinner Salad ($2.75), which featured slices o cantaloupe amid lettuce, onions, radishes, olives and peppers. It was alovely combination, complemented by the Parmesan-rich house dressing.
My husband then had Clams Caracas ($6.25). The clams, bake on the half shell in garlic and herb butter, were among the finest he's eaten. And the prosciutto and mozzarella on top reminded him of a pizza -- a very good, very sophisticated pizza.
For entrees, we had Chicken Cacciatora in a white wine sauc ($13.50) and Piatti Romani with shrimp and veal ($19.95). We also shared a side order of fettucine with butter-cheese sauce ($5.75 on the menu; $6.95 on the bill) that was good, but in need of salt.
I was intrigued by the idea of cacciatora without tomatoes, i part because I love my family's hearty, tomato-y recipe. Velleggia's version was built around herbs and wine, a beautiful accompaniment to the tender chicken amid peppers, onions and mushrooms. The flavor, though peppery hot, was lovely; the portion large enough to provide for a later lunch.
The Romani was both different and delicious. Pieces of veal an several shrimp were, to quote the menu, ''simmered to $l perfection in a lively sauce of tomatoes, herbs, grated parmigiano cheese and served with pasta shells and spinach.''
If anything, that description didn't capture the subtl combination of flavors, especially in the superb sauce, which covered not only the veal and the shrimp but also the shells and the spinach.''
Marinara on spinach may seem an odd combination. It was wonderful combination, at least as Velleggia's does it. My husband's only complaint, and a very small one, is that the shrimp were not nearly as good as the veal.
Desserts were -- surprisingly after so much terrific food -- disappointing. The peach sauce with strawberries atop my cheesecake was too sweet, spoiling the overall flavor; my husband's chocolate and peanut butter cake was dry. Neither was made in-house; it showed. Each was $3.50. Our bill, with two cocktails, two glasses of wine and two coffees was $87.50
Despite the disappointment at the end, the meal had overall been excellent. As overall had been the service. We wondered how many of those prom-goers, with the night ahead dancing in their heads, had paid enough attention to the food to do it justice. We hope they'll return in calmer times-and bring their parents
. . . . Pizza John's Restaurant and Carry-out in Essex is celebrating its 25th birthday this month and, in an about-face for birthdays, is giving gifts instead of receiving them. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays throughout the month, the Coruzzi brothers will donate a percentage of the restaurant's sales to charity. There are eight charities designated to receive the donations. Among them are First Baptist Church of Essex, Middleborough Volunteer Fire Department and St. Clement MaryHofbauer School. Pizza John's is at 113 Back River Neck Road.
Dici Naz Velleggia
204 E. Joppa Road, Towson
Hours: Lunch served Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner served every day 5 to 11:15 p.m. (Kitchen closes slightly earlier on Sunday and Monday.)
Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.
Handicapped access: Accessible.
Smoking: Separate areas designated