A Strong Link In The Chain Gang

DINING OUT

February 21, 1993|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Sfuzzi, 100 E. Pratt St., (410) 576-8500. Open for lunch Mondays to Saturdays, dinner every day, brunch on Sundays. AE, DC, MC, V. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair accessible: yes. Prices: first courses, $3.50-$6.25; entrees, $7.75-$15.95.

The food is cucina rustica gone high style. The format is yet another upscale restaurant chain. This chain, Sfuzzi (pronounced foo-zee"), has been so successful that after five years, starting in Dallas, there are now 15 restaurants.

In November, Sfuzzi Baltimore opened in the IBM Building where Friendly's restaurant used to be. The concept is much the same as at another harbor restaurant, Paolo's -- a trendy interpretation of an Italian bistro, with lots of atmosphere, food with pizazz and at least some dishes on the menu reasonably priced. Paolo's has been a big success in the Inner Harbor. There's no reason Sfuzzi's shouldn't be, too.

Now food with pizazz doesn't necessarily mean great food, but at least it won't bore you. And a couple of our dishes bordered on greatness. (A couple were pretty disappointing. You figure.) Also, Sfuzzi bills itself as a moderately priced Italian bistro, but it's easy to run up the bill when, with that moderately priced pasta dish, you order a first course and an a la carte salad and a tempting dessert and an espresso. Especially if you get a bottle of wine: The wine list starts in the $16-$18 range.

Sfuzzi's dining space is as wide open (and noisy) as it was when it was a Friendly's -- basically just a big room with lots of glass, so you do get a good view of the harbor. There the resemblance begins and ends. Sfuzzi has trompe l'oeil architectural ruins superimposed on exposed brick walls, contemporary blond wood and cane chairs, and halogen lighting. Pompeii meets New York.

It has an open-display kitchen (well, I guess we could say Friendly's did, too), a wood-burning pizza oven and a handsome bar that was strangely deserted the night we were there -- although the dining room was full. The menu is limited, with some pizzas, some pastas and six specialties for around $15.

If we'd had nothing but first courses and desserts I'd have nothing but good to say about Sfuzzi. I loved the warm portabella mushrooms, their great chewy texture set off by just-crisp asparagus tips, both bathed in a well-balanced vinaigrette with minced tomato. Attention is paid to presentation; it and our other appetizer were almost as good to look at as to eat.

Baked eggplant with smoked mozzarella and tomatoes doesn't sound exciting, but it was so delicately put together, with such a fresh tomato sauce so prettily decorated with pesto, it ended up being every bit as good as the mushrooms.

You could also start with soup, in this case Tuscan white beawith rosemary. This is a fine, hefty soup, intensely flavorful, but it's hardly an appetizer. With bread and a salad you'd have a complete meal. (Unfortunately, the Sfuzzi salad wasn't nearly as interesting as the rest of dinner. It had the usual greens and tomato, cucumber, carrots, a pickled pepper or two.)

We had high hopes at this point in our meal, but a main course olinguine with rock shrimp and scallops had a marinara sauce that was too spicy for any of us to eat. Too bad: The seafood was fine and I liked the looks of the sauce, tossed with the pasta rather than heaped in a great mass on top.

A better choice is the large ravioli, filled with ricotta and arranged with chunks of lightly smoked chicken, slivers of wild mushrooms and lots of rosemary. A pleasant combination, although it didn't wow us the way the portabella mushrooms and the eggplant did.

Pizzas are a good bet if you're interested in the low end (price-wise) of the menu: Sfuzzi's does have that wood-burning oven, which creates an excellent crust and slightly smoky flavor. From the high end we wanted to try grilled swordfish, but the kitchen had run out of it, so we settled on grilled salmon. I've had fresher, but it wasn't bad. The citrus-basil sauce was surprisingly sweet, though, and vegetables were limited to two rounds of potato and a handful of baby green beans.

As all hip Italian restaurants are doing now, Sfuzzi serves focaccia with olive oil for dipping instead of the usual bread and butter. Sfuzzi's focaccia is a bit too intensely flavored to be a good foil for the food, but it's fine with a glass of wine before dinner.

Desserts are worth saving room for. My recommendations? A delicately creamy creme brulee in an orange-ricotta tart shell with a bit of caramelized sugar on top and a few fresh raspberries. Pure bliss. The cappuccino pie made with mocha ice cream, caramel sauce and candy coffee beans. A deceptively light, wonderfully rich tiramisu. Sfuzzi's fine espresso -- the only thing we really needed after our dinner -- is served with a delicious, paper-thin slice of biscotti. A big hand for the pastry chef, please.

Whatever criticisms you have of the upscale chain restaurants that have moved into the area, you have to admit they've got some things down. Like service. They understand the importance of good service (you'd think any restaurant would), and they hire accordingly. And here's another one: They understand the importance of details like having food arrive at the table hot. You don't realize how nice that is until you eat at a place like Sfuzzi, which heats its plates and gets them to the table quickly.

$ Next: Kent Manor Inn

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