At a party a few years back I heard a woman say, "What this country needs is a good depression." I took it she liked the idea of watching everyone knuckle under while she enjoyed the sales racks. My parents' stories about life in the '30s were more sad than exhilarating, so I didn't buy her argument, but still, I like seeing intelligence and pragmatism go to work when things get tough.
In recent months, the heat's been on in the restaurant business, and not just in the kitchen. Some forms of adaptive behavior have been predictable -- live music, prix-fixe meals, coupons and ads -- but the response I applaud most has been a new focus on simple meals, simply presented at reasonable prices. Take Enrico's, for example. In an informal atmosphere, friendly to ordinary clothes, to relaxed behavior and to children, it serves inexpensive food that's good at the price. Smart.
It calls itself "A Family Style Italian Eatery." To me, "eatery" suggests a place that's serviceable and without pretension, and it's apt for this cheerful, checkered-tablecloth operation with a dark cork ceiling, cottage windows framing a view on backyard grass, print curtains, and a bar that feels like horse country.
The menu lists subs with chips and a pickle ($3.25-$3.75), pizzas ($4.75 for a 9-inch pizza with tomato and cheese), pastas ($5.75 to $6.50, depending on what you choose to sauce spaghettini, linguine, fusilli or rigatoni), "homemades," which include lasagna, fettuccine Alfredo and stuffed eggplant (all $8.50), and regular entrees, like crab cakes and boneless chicken breast ($8.50- $10.95). Order pastas, "homemades" and entrees as complete dinners, and for an additional $3, you get a choice of minestrone or melon, a house salad, bread and dessert.
We ordered an appetizer of mussels marinara ($3.25) and a mushroom and olive pizza (an extra 75 cents for each topping brought the price to $6.25). Both took almost a half-hour to arrive at the table, but both were likable. The dozen mussels were silky and fresh, in a tomato and wine sauce whose lively, interesting tastes were part audacious whole cloves of peeled, cooked garlic.
Some particularly earthen mushrooms gave the pizza character, in combination with olives that weren't entirely bland, and a pleasant, firm crust, crunchy at the edges.
I ordered a vegetable lasagna dinner ($11.50; $8.50 without extras). The cup of minestrone that was included came by itself (followed by a salad that arrived with the other appetizers). Luigi Carnacina's "Great Italian Cooking" says that "minestroni are never thin, watery soups, but soups so amply laden with vegetables or pasta that they may be described more accurately as eaten rather than drunk." If that's the case, what we were served was a cup of vegetable soup, heavy on dried oregano, but appealingly varied with bacon, small pieces of meat, pale brown beans, and some soft, long-cooked vegetables in a palatable broth.
The house salad consisted of romaine and iceberg lettuces, red cabbage, cucumber and grated carrot -- standard ingredients, but fresh-tasting and without any brown edges. The creamy Italian dressing we tried had some finesse, and was lightly applied to give flavor without weight.
Vegetable lasagna was an uncomplicated dish that consisted of layers of pasta sandwiched between layers of broccoli, yellow squash (according to the menu -- it wasn't otherwise noticeable), spinach, ricotta and mozzarella (again, not noticeable). Over the top was a light sauce of essentially unseasoned tomato. The only unattractive feature of the dish was its soupy wateriness -- almost certainly vegetable water, expressed in the cooking process.
Our second entree, trout amandine, the fish of the day ($10.50), was fine with us even though the fish tasted old. We liked the crisp, sliced, blanched almonds, the vigorous butter lemon sauce, and the peas in oiled rice that tasted cooked a moment before. Veal Marsala ($10.50) was unquestionably best. The breading was light and not oily, the sauce had some life to it, and the mushrooms over the top were excellent. Mushrooms can be such pallid, vague entities, but these still tasted of their musky, forest-floor origins.
Desserts were commercial-tasting but respectable at $1.95. Fresh carrot cake had plenty of allspice, but the unsuspecting should be warned: At Enrico's, chocolate sabayon is a mild, unchocolate cake, not an egg and wine confection.
We saw numerous, well-behaved children. Their parents may have been taking advantage of Enrico's special deal: Before 7 o'clock, the child of an adult who orders an entree gets a child's entree free. Deal aside, $1.95 buys such child-friendly plates as a hot dog, peanut butter and jelly, or fish sticks.
808 Westminster Pike, Reisterstown, 833-6301
Tuesdays 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: All major credit cards
FEATURES: Italian food
NO-SMOKING AREA: No
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: No