Boccaccio, 925 Eastern Ave., (410) 234-1322. Open Mondays to Fridays for lunch and dinner, Saturdays and Sundays dinner only. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair access: no.
Three years ago Giovanni Rigato sold his successful restaurant Capriccio and semi-retired to Italy. He did open a little place for a season there, but it was never meant to be a long-term operation.
"I missed Baltimore," he says now. "I missed the action." So Mr. Rigato has returned to Baltimore -- and to Little Italy -- to open a new restaurant, Boccaccio.
Money has obviously been spent to make these some of the most luxurious dining rooms in the area. The look is lush, with peach walls and flowery draperies, large arrangements of silk flowers and reproductions of French impressionists. But even though the dining rooms are formal, the food and prices geared to special occasions and the waiters in tuxedos, because this is Little Italy, customers dress casually. It's strange to see people wearing jeans in a place that serves cherries jubilee.
Cherries jubilee? It doesn't sound very Italian, does it? But put aside your preconceptions about Little Italy restaurants when you enter Boccaccio. Mr. Rigato says he saw a big change in Italian cooking when he moved back to Italy three years ago, and his new menu reflects that. He also sees a change in people's attitudes toward eating out now that he's returned to Baltimore.
He was amazed, for instance, that the most popular dishes he serves are simple grilled meats and fish. (He is, by the way, the chef as well as the owner.) "I thought people would want the sauces," he says.
I usually don't comment on food I haven't tried myself, but the huge charcoaled veal chop served at the table next to us looked so good I regretted not ordering it. Still, it couldn't have been better than the marvelously fresh, thick white monkfish ($18.50) that had been marinated in olive oil, lemon juice and rosemary and grilled to perfect doneness. It was arranged with thin slices of tender-crisp grilled zucchini.
You might begin this meal with succulent little curls of escargots ($8.50) cooked in garlic butter and cognac, with flaky puff pastry on top. Or with some of the best carpaccio ($9.25) I've had in Baltimore. The marinated beef was impossibly thin and wonderfully tender; the capers, Parmesan shavings and mushrooms complemented it beautifully.
A la carte salads are worth ordering for their interesting, fresh greens and praiseworthy dressings. Try one of radicchio, arugula and endive with vinaigrette ($5.50) or the chef's combination ($5.50) of red leaf, romaine and endive with tiny olives, minced celery and a balsamic vinegar dressing.
Veal is definitely a house specialty, and there were several dishes on the list of specials the night we were there. I had veal medallions with fresh artichoke hearts ($18.50), which was very good but didn't have quite the pizazz of some of our other dishes. The veal was beautifully white and cut easily with a fork, but the sauce was the standard -- though very pleasant -- butter, parsley, wine and lemon. Stuffed baby squid ($18.50), however, was a tour de force. The squid, remarkably tender, was plump with minced lobster, shrimp, scallops and bread crumbs flavored with fresh basil. It lay on a bed of sauteed fresh spinach.
With such skill evident in the kitchen, we were surprised by orecchiette alla boscaiola ($11.75), a half order of which can be had as a first course. The presentation had none of the artistry of the rest of our dishes. It was just a bowl of characterless pasta drowned in red sauce. While there were porcini mushrooms, prosciutto and bacon as promised, they were lost in the overwhelming amount of uninteresting sauce.
I was also a little disappointed in both the choices of side dishes that come with dinners. Neither was dreadful, just not up to the rest of our meal. We could choose the usual plate of spaghetti, which came with too much tomato sauce, or fresh broccoli with grated cheese, which had been allowed to get a little gray in the cooking.
Enough carping. Boccaccio has a thoughtful wine list. And it has some of the best bread in Little Italy -- three different kinds. I can't decide whether I liked the classic Italian, the rustic loaf or the herb-scented focaccia better.
And somehow you should save room for dessert. Each one we tried was superior: zabaglione ($5.25), an incredibly rich, creamy custard sauce over fresh strawberries; tiramisu ($4.75), an upscale icebox pudding made the way it should be so it's lusciously moist and fragrant with espresso; and zuppa inglese ($4), the Italian version of an English trifle. No, we never got around to trying those cherries jubilee; maybe next time.