Some first-rate restaurants, like some first-rate actors, have humble beginnings. Al Pacino -- the first-rate restaurant, not the first-rate actor -- started out as a little Fells Point pizzeria. It wasn't much to look at, unless an old poster of CheSome first-rate restaurants, like some first-rate actors, have humble beginnings. Al Pacino -- the first-rate restaurant, not the first-rate actor -- started out as a little Fells Point pizzeria. It wasn't much to look at, unless an old poster of Cher is your idea of decor, but the brick-oven pizza was extraordinary. Basic pizzas, dressy California pizzas, even pizzas which honored the owners' Middle Eastern roots: Nothing seemed beyond the range of the Al Pacino Cafe.
I use the past tense not because the original cafe is no longer in existence, but because the concept has expanded both beyond Fells Point and beyond pizza. The second Al Pacino, in Mount Vernon, is more attractive, but no larger, than the original. And full-service restaurant status arrived with the opening of Egyptian Pizza (aka Al Pacino Cafe III) in the Belvedere Market area.
This bright, casual cafe is considerably larger than its brother restaurants, and so tightly packed with tables and chairs that maneuvering is difficult. But all are necessary; Egyptian Pizza always seems to be filled to capacity -- don't even think about dropping in before or after the Saturday night show at the Senator.
The new menu (most of which also has been adopted by the other two places) includes Middle Eastern appetizers and platters, salads, sandwiches, calzone, pastas, extravagant imported cakes and 30 different styles of pizza, including some wacky-but-tempting varieties topped with things like tandoori chicken, smoked salmon and marinated eggplant.
We started with a shared Middle Eastern combination appetizer platter ($6.95), which included two cool, garlicky dips (humus and babaganush), superlatively flavorful stuffed grape leaves, interesting falafel patties (crusty brown outside, with a lively green interior), and a tangy lettuce-free Mediterranean salad topped with crumbled feta. Unlike most appetizers, this really did perk up our appetites.
My companion indulged in the telmare ($7.95), a pasta dish that has to rank as one of the city's best bargains. Its shrimp and scallops were large and very fresh, and roasted red peppers and red onions gave a special zing to a ripe-tomato sauce garnished with fresh basil and mint leaves.
In honor of the restaurant's name, I tried the most Egyptian-sounding of the pizzas, the Giza ($7.95), which is topped with schwarma, marinated Middle Eastern beef with an interesting cinnamon tang. The flavor was intriguing, but the schwarma was too juicy to make an effective pizza topping; try a platter instead.
"Casual gourmet" might seem as much of a mixed message as, well, "Egyptian pizza," but the Al Pacino folks have mastered it handily. At how many places in town can you eat goat cheese and rabbit sausage and still bring the baby?
(Al Pacino Cafe)
Where: 542 E. Belvedere Ave.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
Credit Cards: MC, V.
Features: Pizza, pasta, Middle Eastern dishes.
Non-smoking section? No smoking allowed in the restaurant.