Two For The Sweet Tooth

DINING OUT

January 10, 1993|By ELIZABETH LARGE

So many coffeehouses have opened up in Baltimore that there's no shortage of places to get a good espresso and something sweet. But if you're more interested in the something sweet than the coffee, you might want to stop in at one of Baltimore's dessert cafes.

Vaccaro's Italian Pastry Shop in Little Italy and Cafe Madeira in Fells Point are so completely different in style that about all they have in common is that they specialize in sweets first and coffees second.

Vaccaro's opened in 1956, supplying restaurants in Little Italy and serving pastries and gelato directly to the public. The thriving operation has expanded to several area malls: Vaccaro's is big business now.

Nothing could be more of a contrast than the tiny, quirky Cafe Madeira just off Broadway on Thames Street. It bills itself as a "European-style dessert cafe," which owner Melanie Marne runs with very little help. Before she decided to open her own place a couple of years ago, Ms. Marne made desserts for restaurants and had a catering company, Just Dessert Catering. With Cafe Madeira, she can now get the credit she deserves for her chocolate raspberry tarts and peanut butter pie.

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Vaccaro's Italian Pastry Shop

Vaccaro's Italian Pastry Shop, 222 Albermarle St., (410) 685-4905. Open every day at 7:30 a.m., until 10 p.m. Sundays and Mondays, 11 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. MC, V. No-smoking area: no. Wheelchair accessible: no. Prices: around $5 for dessert and coffee.

Vaccaro's is located in a corner rowhouse and would look like any other pleasant Little Italy shop if it weren't for the jazzy blue neon signs that proclaim "gelato" and "espresso" and "cannoli." It's amazing how these make the simple little tables, the pyramided boxes of panettone (Italian fruitcake), the bakery cases filled with cookies and even the portrait of the founder look with-it -- a real Place to Be. The background music? Italian opera.

Vaccaro's is the place I'd go when I had a craving for something incredibly sweet. Even the cappuccino is closer to dessert than coffee. It comes in stemmed glass cups with lots of frothed milk plus whipped cream on top -- unless you request otherwise.

Most of the pastries taste very much the same to me: cream puffs filled with custard or cannoli filling, no chocolate glaze; cannoli filled with a bland, sweet ricotta filling; giant napoleons layered with custard cream, no fondant on top.

The desserts Vaccaro's is known for -- rum cake and tiramisu -- both disappointed. The former had so little liquor it wasn't very interesting, and the second was so soaked in it you couldn't taste anything else. The chocoholic with me on one visit couldn't find anything except ice cream that would deliver a true chocolate fix, but another time I did discover a drop-dead chocolate cheesecake.

What I think Vaccaro's does best is its ice cream desserts. It has the classic Italian ones like spumoni, tortoni and tartufo (an individual ice cream bombe in a hard chocolate shell), and decidedly American ones like Oreo ice cream pie.

As for the cookies I've tried, the almond and the chocolate-dipped biscotti and the plain and pine nut macaroons are sweet but not particularly noteworthy. But Vaccaro's pretty sugar cookies are addictive.

Cafe Madeira

Cafe Madeira, 1623 Thames St., (410) 675-7105. Open 7 a.m to 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursdays, 7 a.m. to midnight Fridays, noon to midnight Saturdays, noon to 6 p.m. Sundays. No credit cards. No-smoking area: no. Wheelchair access: no. Prices: around $5 for dessert and coffee.

Like so many places in Fells Point, you go to Cafe Madeira for the charming setting as much as the food. Located in a storefront, it has parquet floors, walls painted gray and hung with the work of local artists, five pink-topped tables set with doily mats, cloth napkins and pretty mismatched china. The pastry case with its glorious array of pies, cakes, tarts and cheesecakes dominates the little room.

The selection of desserts is extensive: You can have cappuccino Madeira (iced coffee made with a scoop of homemade mocha ice cream), cranberry walnut scones served warm with butter, or Eastern Shore bread pudding. And yes, your dog can have a homemade gourmet dog biscuit -- Cafe Madeira is known for them.

The desserts themselves, gorgeous as they look, are somewhat uneven. Only a piece of pecan pie -- one of the less elaborate choices -- was an unqualified success. The crust flaked at the touch of a fork, the deliciously sticky-sweet filling was thick with fat pecans. To die for.

Then there was the banana cream pie, highly recommended by a regular. It was the mile-high variety, beautiful to look at, but it tasted more like banana extract than bananas.

A thin chocolate cup was filled with cranberry mousse -- the jury is still out on whether the combination worked. The pretty sugar cookie it sat on was tasteless, and the decorative squiggles looked suspiciously like Hershey's syrup.

What I liked about Cafe Madeira, though, is that there's so much variety you're bound to hit upon something you adore. Perhaps chocolate bark, with a chocolate cream filling and raspberry filling; perhaps something as simple as a slice of homemade poundcake.

Next: Hoang's

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