Sfuzzi offers a charming illusion

URBAN LANDSCAPE

January 14, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

The uneven brick walls look as if the masons had one too many drinks. The fool-the-eye paintings of architectural ruins are unlikely to fool anyone. And the faux candleholders are really electrified chandeliers that are suspended too close to the ceiling to shed much light.

Yet somehow, the restaurant of the hour in Baltimore seems to be Sfuzzi (pronounced foo-zee), the Italian bistro that opened with a flourish last fall on the ground floor of the office building at 100 E. Pratt St.

All of a sudden it's the place to have lunch, the place to dine before the theater, the place to go after "doing" the harbor. Yet the place is so large -- it used to be a Friendly's restaurant -- one has to wonder: where did all these people come from?

Baltimore's Sfuzzi is the 15th in a chain launched by a New York partnership. Its trademark is a fanciful "ruinesque" decor that is a clever take-off of Old World bistros. It juxtaposes open-beam ceilings and frescoes that appear to be peeling off the wall with an open-display kitchen, modern table appointments and halogen lights.

The Baltimore restaurant has brick walls and textured arches that suggest diners are in the undercroft of an ancient basilica rather than a modern office building. A deliberated, distressed frieze depicts objects of local significance: orioles, Maryland crabs and clipper ships. The brick walls were intentionally laid in a haphazard fashion, with mortar oozing, to give the illusion of age -- as if the room were underneath Friendly's all along, and only recently unearthed.

To this setting, the management has added perky servers, representing all the right demographics. Vellum menus echo the textured walls.

Bartenders serve wonderful frozen drinks called Bellinis -- which are like peach-flavored Slurpees mixed with sparkling wine.

Restaurant critics can debate the culinary merits of Sfuzzi's fettuccine, or compare its linguine to Paolo's. Somehow, food seems beside the point in a place like this. After visiting twice in two days, once for lunch and once for dinner, I don't remember anything I had to eat. Yet I had so much fun I'd go back tomorrow. Even the kooky name -- made up by the owners to mean "fun food" -- tends to grow on you.

Why is it such a phenomenon? It's not the food or the service or the decor individually. It's the way the owners put it all together and pulled off a coherent and entertaining theme.

Of course, themes are nothing new. People expect them at Disney World and Busch Gardens and festival markets on urban waterfronts.

Night clubs and hotel restaurants have themes, too, such as the Baja Beach Club or the Harbor Court Hotel's Explorer's Lounge, with its "Out of Africa" look.

What's different about Sfuzzi is the owners' decision to open a themed restaurant where it's least expected -- inside a 28-story office building -- and the lengths they've gone to create a fantasy.

Beyond the Inner Harbor, others are creating worlds of their own.

In Canton, the Bay Cafe trucks in live palm trees to create a tropical flair. At Camden Yards, Bambino's Pub continues the baseball theme of the ballpark next door. In Mount Vernon, Donna's Coffee Bar has a sexy-utilitarian look that could be right out of Metropolitan Home magazine.

And restaurateur Tzu Ming Yang plans to open The City Diner at 911 N. Charles St. -- not a free-standing restaurant but a theme diner inside a brownstone next to the old Peabody Book Shop and Beer Stube.

Food for thought. The message is that today's diners don't judge a restaurant simply by sampling the entree. They judge it by how entertaining the experience is. As a wave of post-recession restaurants opens around the state, Marylanders are likely to see more and more themed establishments, in all sorts of unlikely places.

But don't worry about the competition overtaking Sfuzzi. It's going to do just Sfine.

The Lyric Opera House received more than $900,000 worth of improvements in 1992, including new dressing rooms and rehearsal space for performers below stage-level.

The theater has 210 dates booked for the 1992-1993 season, the most ever for the 1894 landmark, according to Lyric Foundation Chairman H. Mebane Turner.

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