For pasta lovers, a bargain in the basement on Charles Street

May 21, 1993|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Restaurant Critic

Strapazza must be doing something right. The popular

Towson pizzeria and inexpensive Italian restaurant has spin-offs in Annapolis and now on Charles Street, with a new Strapazza scheduled to open across from Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

The Charles Street location puzzles me a little. Towson and Annapolis and Camden Yards make perfect sense, but it wouldn't occur to me to open a restaurant like this in the basement of a downtown office building. What makes the combination lunch and dinner menu so appealing is that it's remarkably inexpensive for dinner. It's hard, though, to believe that Strapazza Charles Street gets much in the way of a dinner crowd -- just because of where it's located. Even at lunchtime it wasn't packed.

That's probably because you might not notice it, even walkinright by. If you do, you go down a flight of stairs to get to the dining room. The owners have painted the exposed pipes on the ceiling a nice dusty red, so it feels a little less like a basement than it might otherwise. Most of the seating is comfortable booths. And there's a huge, colorful aquarium to one side.

You have to love a restaurant where the most expensive item on the menu is $7.55 (seafood linguine) -- or if not love it, forgive it almost anything. So only a restaurant critic would complain about a first course of panzarotti being served on institutional paper towels to absorb the grease. These are fat little fingers of mashed potato, prosciutto, mozzarella and garlic, dipped in bread crumbs and deep fried. If you like potato croquettes, you'll love them. And the chopped fresh parsley is kind of a nice touch with the paper towels.

Your best bet for a main course, judging from our meal, might ba pasta. It was spaghetti, not the promised penne; but it was otherwise admirable, with four plump shrimp, perfectly cooked; a blush-pink cream sauce; broccoli; fresh tomatoes and mushrooms. It came with chewy bread sticks.

Our waiter recommended a "white gourmet" pizza, with frestomatoes instead of sauce, mozzarella and ricotta cheeses and broccoli. I'm a pizza purist, but the off-beat combination worked well and Strapazza's pizza has a fabulous crust. For some reason, though, it sat in a pool of oil -- unappetizing, and difficult to deal with if you're eating with your fingers.

Strapazza's house salads are large and inexpensive, with the usual ingredients. The house dressing, like everything else, was heavy on the garlic. (This isn't the place you'd want to have lunch before an important business meeting.)

Desserts had potential, but neither was perfect. Tiramisu had been frozen and wasn't completely thawed out, and sfogliatella, a delicious pastry with cannoli filling, was burnt around the edges. The espresso was strong enough to take the enamel off your teeth.

Strapazza

Where: 201 N. Charles St.

Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Saturday

Credit cards accepted: Major credit cards

Features: Italian food

Non-smoking section? Yes

Call: (410) 576-1177

Prices: Appetizers, $3.95-$4.25; entrees, $5.95-$7.55

** 1/2

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