Some of the homemade food's not worth a trip, but pizza will send you

December 11, 1992|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Restaurant Critic

The call came from a reader -- or so she said; I'm never sure it's not an owner -- who recommended a tiny, inexpensive restaurant on Belair Road that had authentic Sicilian cooking, everything homemade. This is the kind of place I'm always looking for, especially now that every second restaurant that opens up in Baltimore is part of a chain.

When I got to 5501 Belair Road, I was a little daunted by the exterior. Zia Pina looks like a carryout pizza place. But I've had great food at worse-looking restaurants, so I went in.

Inside it still looked like a carryout pizza place, with a counter and three booths. (I noticed later there was a darkened dining room in back.) The front room is cheerful enough, decorated with the colors of the Italian flag and soccer posters. The menu had me worried -- it's mostly pizza, baked rolls and hoagies with a few pastas -- but oddly enough, Zia Pina also has a respectable, though quite short, wine list. And the menu promises that all sorts of things are homemade, from the sausage and sauces to the cannoli and gelati.

There are no first courses offered, unless you want a salad, but the cook had made soup that day, chicken noodle. It was a fine old-fashioned version, with lots of chicken, a flavorful broth, carrots and thin noodles. Definitely not out of a can.

That made us hopeful about the rest of our meal, eggplant parmesan and a special of the day, sausage and green peppers in wine sauce. But what a disaster. The eggplant, cooked to mush, was covered with a bit of cheese and a tomato sauce that tasted as if it had been made while we waited -- with a can of tomatoes, some oil and a couple of cloves of garlic. The garlic sat there on the plate, only slightly cooked.

The sausage, made on the premises, was chewy and tough, and the flavor was unpleasant. The wine sauce tasted like inexpensive wine had been dumped in at the last minute and not cooked long enough for the alcohol to evaporate.

The bread -- surprising in an Italian place that prides itself on its authentic cooking -- turned out to be a hoagie roll.

For dessert, the cannoli shell was one of the best I've ever had, so flaky and delicate it shattered at the touch of a fork. But the filling tasted like a cross between vanilla pudding and cottage cheese.

So what did we like? Well, a Zia Pina special salad had lettuce, tomato, cucumber, olives and provolone, ham and salami rolled in pretty little cones. It was pretty good.

But the surprise of the evening was the pizza: This is pizza I'd go out of my way to get. You have to like thin pizza (I do), with a crispy, crunchy crust -- not just at the edges but all of it. The balance of toppings is just right; it isn't greasy.

What I want to know is why people are calling about Zia Pina's Sicilian dishes when they ought to be calling about as good a pizza as you'll find in Baltimore.

Zia Pina

Where: 5501 Belair Road.

Hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Credit cards accepted: MC, V, D, C.

Features: Italian food.

Non-smoking section? No.

Call: (410) 485-5700.

Price Range: $1.35-6.95

**

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