'All Sorts Of Good Things' On Menu

DINING OUT

April 11, 1993|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Liberatore's, Timonium Corporate Center, Timonium, (410) 561-3300. Open Mondays to Saturdays for lunch, every day for dinner. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: no. Wheelchair-accessible: yes. Prices: appetizers, $5.95-$7.95; entrees: $8.95-$24.95.

Rarely do I feel as ambivalent about a restaurant as I did after our dinner at Liberatore's. I knew that it was the hot new Italian restaurant in the Timonium area. But I still didn't expect to have to wait 20 minutes on a Sunday night with reservations. Twenty minutes may not seem that long, but there were no seats at the bar so we had to stand.

Then, when we were finally seated, people on each side of us lit up, even though I had requested the no-smoking area when I made the reservations and repeated the request when we arrived. I didn't make a fuss at that point because there was no part of the room where people weren't smoking.

I did complain to the owner as I went out (I also complimented him on the food and service), and he just made a joke about it. I guess if you're this hot, you don't really need cranky non-smokers for customers.

I had heard a lot about the interior of Liberatore's, designed bRebeka Gurfinchel (she even gets a credit on the menu), so I was surprised by how little she had to work with. It's hard when you start with two big, featureless rooms -- drop ceilings and all -- located in a contemporary office building. But Ms. Gurfinchel has done her best, using a faux baroque style and a touch of humor. It's Mediterranean decor, but there are no checked tablecloths and Chianti bottles here. Wonderful paintings of cherubs dominate the rooms, which are decorated in shades of peach, pale yellow and soft green. There's even a blue sky full of cherubs painted on the ceiling of the vestibule.

With such an extravagant reinterpretation of Mediterranearestaurant decor, I didn't expect Liberatore's to serve the kind of food you can find almost anywhere in Little Italy. But for the most part it does. I suppose it's not that surprising: The Liberatore family has more than 50 years combined experience working in Little Italy. (Their other restaurant is Velleggia's Casa di Pasta in Eldersburg.)

Still, I expected something more interesting than the usual frdiavolo dishes and a menu that proclaims "We proudly serve DeCecco pasta." I proudly serve DeCecco pasta myself, so I know from experience it doesn't involve anything more than going to the store and buying a box.

But as I looked at the menu a little closer I found all sorts of goothings. And most of these turned out to be every bit as fine as they sounded. Sauces were fresh-tasting and light, even the very rich ones. Ingredients were impeccably fresh and carefully prepared -- no overcooked seafood or rapidly cooling soups here.

My recommendations? First of all, try to resist the almosirresistible bread, which is a chewy-crusted sourdough. You don't want to kill your appetite if you've ordered -- say -- swordfish tarragon, a thick, to-die-for piece of fish with a delicate cream sauce just tinged with tarragon and lemon. Fresh green beans with almonds are served on the side.

Or try the chicken Rafael, with its fork-tender medallions of whitmeat, perfectly cooked and topped with two enormous shrimp, an artichoke heart or two and sauteed mushrooms. The satiny sauce is gently spiked with Marsala.

On the menu, steak with chimichure sauce has the mysterious comment "A Family Recipe" and nothing else beside it. The waiter didn't know much more, but it turned out to be a flavorful New York strip, cooked rare as ordered with fresh chopped garlic and a little wine for a sauce.

Only the veal chop Miami caused any disagreement. I felt take-it-or-leave-it about the dish, but everyone else couldn't get enough. The chop was semi-boned and pan-fried so it had a light crust like veal parmigiana's -- but was still attached to the bone. On top had been arranged an intriguing and colorful "salad" of marinated chopped vegetables -- fresh tomatoes, onions, parsley and the like.

You can get half orders of Liberatore's homemade pasta for a first course: ravioli filled with finely chopped porcini mushrooms and ricotta, for instance, or tender tortellini with an intriguing sauce that's part pesto, part tomato and part alfredo.

Scarpetta toast is another possibility, a sort of gazpacho combination of chopped vegetables, olive oil and garlic over toasted sourdough. Once we got over the surprise that it's more salad than toast, we liked it very much. As for the house salad itself, it's pretty ordinary compared to the rest of the food, but it does have a fine creamy dressing.

Were there no disasters? Well, the soup of the day, fish souptasted too fishy to eat. Balancing it, though, was pasta e fagioli soup, a suave version of the pasta and bean classic.

For dessert, only the tiramisu and zabaglione are made on the premises. The waiter commiserated with us because none of the former was left, but it couldn't have been better than the eggy-creamy custard with fresh strawberries. If you decide instead to have espresso or cappuccino, you should know they're made for American tastes. The espresso was weak and the cappuccino topped with whipped cream.

$ Next: The Milton Inn

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