Familiar Italian Fare, Done With Flair

DINING OUT

May 31, 1992|By ELIZABETH LARGE

In the past few years places have opened up here that demonstrate the range of Italian cooking, and established restaurants have started offering regional specialties that never used to be available. Still, there are those restaurants in Little Italy that have always served the kind of Italian food Baltimoreans love best -- the hearty pastas; the veal parmigiana; the posillipo, fra diavolo and marinara dishes; the choice of salad or spaghetti with tomato sauce no matter what your main course. Such a restaurant is Caesar's Den.

This kind of place can be dreadful -- Italian-food cliche after cliche handled with indifference. But at their best they offer feel-good, comfortable, familiar food for those times when you don't want to be adventurous. That's why Little Italy is so beloved by Baltimoreans. Not because each visit is an epicurean experience, and certainly not because it's a cheap night out.

Caesar's Den is the epitome of what's right with these restaurants. When you walk into the dining room you feel, well, wanted. The maitre d' (even that sounds too formal) lets you know in the most gentle and dignified way how delighted he is that you've chosen his restaurant out of all the restaurants you might have picked in Little Italy.

The dining rooms are soothing, with a neutral color scheme that serves as a backdrop for large, old-fashioned paintings -- a garden near the sea and that sort of thing. Nothing about the rooms is stylish; you wouldn't want it to be.

Before I ever opened the menu, I could have quoted most of it to you. It's the standard stuff. What I like about Caesar's Den is that, having decided to stick with the tried and true, the kitchen produces it with a reasonable amount of verve. Not everything works, but the results are livelier than you might expect.

First of all, if I were giving stars, Caesar's Den would get an extra half-star for its bread alone. The owners hedge their bets by offering the usual fluffy white Italian. But nestled in beside it was a chewy half-loaf, full of character, which the restaurant gets -- according to our waiter -- from Pennsylvania. And then the standard Italian salad turned out to be fresh romaine lettuce and a little cucumber and tomato dressed with an addictively good creamy Italian dressing loaded with Parmesan.

Clams posillipo ($7.50) sported a fresh-tasting, vivid-red tomato sauce sprinkled with chopped parsley. A full-bodied minestrone ($4) had a handsome assortment of beans and vegetables that still retained some individuality. The half-order of gnocchi Caesar ($6.50) was too chewy for my taste, but the miniature potato dumplings were prettily presented in their tomato sauce with a bit of melted mozzarella.

The veal choices are all dishes you've heard of before. I decided on veal scaloppine francese ($17.50), which had the virtue of simplicity -- and tender, well-cooked veal. Too bad the butter, white wine and lemon sauce was made with so much lemon -- it overpowered the other ingredients.

No complaints about the cannelloni in bianco ($12) stuffed with a ground meat mixture of veal, pork and beef. A creamy sauce redolent of nutmeg bathed the tender homemade pasta.

One of the specials of the day was a huge fillet of flounder ($18.50) swimming in a sea of sauce. The fish was beautifully fresh, the cream sauce tinged with tomato, garlic and wine was a fine foil for it; but two of us could have split it and had some left over.

We had been seated next to a cart of fine-looking, not very Italian cakes, so it was a given that at least one of us was going to sample the excellent triple chocolate raspberry Chambord cake. But when we asked our waiter to recommend other desserts, he suggested we move on to Vaccaro's Pastry Shop nearby, a bakery-cafe where many of Little Italy's best desserts come from. We didn't take his suggestion, but I thought it was nice of him. With the price of restaurant desserts these days, his tip could have been affected significantly if we had.

Caesar's Den, 223 S. High St., (410) 547-0820. Open Mondays-Saturdays for lunch and dinner; Sundays for dinner. AE, MC, V. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair access: no. Next: Hampton Tea Room

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