Newest Al Pacino wields great stove, but much of menu remains underdone

November 13, 1992|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Restaurant Critic

Any place that bakes its pizza in a wood-burning oven has to be forgiven almost any flaw. There's something about the slightly charred flavor the wood imparts that makes for an unforgettably good crust. Having said that, though, I'll go on to point out that the newest Al Pacino Cafe in the chain (the fourth) nevertheless needs to get its act together.

I haven't been to the other Al Pacinos, but I'm assuming the Baltimore chain has grown so rapidly because the first three had wonderful pizza and their Middle Eastern offerings, salads and sandwiches were good as well. So I didn't expect a disappointment like the frito misto appetizer ($4.95). Two green pepper rings, three small slices of eggplant and two zucchini slices had been deep-fat fried without the benefit of any batter and without being drained. You can imagine the grease the eggplant alone soaked up. It lay in pools on the lettuce leaf under the vegetables. The tomato dipping sauce with them was good, but the promised pita bread never arrived.

A Neptune Delight salad ($6.75) had great promise; the shrimp and scallops grilled over the wood fire were delicious. But the bed of romaine and red cabbage included the core of the lettuce and underripe avocados, while the promised orange slices were nowhere in evidence.

Our desserts, a praline cake ($2.95) and white chocolate mousse cake ($3.25), were very sweet, tasteless and overpriced.

To back up a bit, I even have a complaint about the pizza: It wasn't cooked long enough, so the crust had the chewy texture of pita bread rather than pizza crust. Now for the good news. In spite of that, it was wonderful pizza. I get a little bogged down when I'm faced with a choice of 30 varieties of anything, let alone pizza, so I ended up with a very simple selection, monzese ($6.95 for a small).

It had that great smoky, wood-fire flavor. It had chunks of Italian tomatoes and just the right amount of mozzarella. It had extravagant quantities of pepperoni and a fine homemade sausage. You can be more adventuresome and get squid or Boursin or barbecue chicken or falafel on your pizza. I'll stick with that sausage.

One dish we ordered was flawless, if unassuming. The soup of the day ($2), chicken-pasta, featured bits of chicken and perfectly cooked orzo pasta in a full-bodied, flavorful chicken broth. A superior soup.

You'll notice that all my complaints are things that could be pretty easily fixed. Federal Hill's Al Pacino is really a very nice place to be. The dining room is cozy-warm on a chilly fall evening; an oldies station plays softly in the background. If the good-natured staff had paid a bit more attention to detail, I'd be hoping a fifth Al Pacino Cafe would open up in my neighborhood.

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