Upscale Italian, Without The Wine And Fancy Pizza

DINING OUT

June 27, 1993|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Scotto's Cafe, Festival at Bel Air, Bel Air, (410) 515-2233. Open every day for lunch and dinner. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair accessible: yes. Prices: appetizers, $4.25- $4.95; entrees: $7.50-$12.95. The hottest trend in area restaurants, in case anyone hasn't noticed, is the upscale Italian cafe. It comes in all shapes and sizes, but there are a few constants. The backbone of the menu is pasta (and we're not talking spaghetti with clam sauce here) and sometimes gourmet pizza from a wood-burning oven. You're more likely to find fresh or sun-dried tomatoes in the sauces than canned. The bread is crusty sourdough or bread sticks or focaccia, and you'll get olive oil to dip it in instead of butter to spread on it. You also have a choice of a number of decent wines by the glass.

Desserts go far beyond a cannoli from Vaccaro's, and espresso and cappuccino are only the beginning of the coffee drinks available. Whenever possible, there are tables outside on the sidewalk -- preferably with Pellegrini umbrellas, although Cinzano will do in a pinch.

I love it. I love the laid-back atmosphere of these cafes. I love the attempt at good food. I love the fact that these places are affordable -- that you can get an interesting dinner of fresh ingredients without waiting for a special occasion.

So they don't always pull it off. Some of the failures still end up being better than a lot of meals I've eaten over the years.

Which brings us to Scotto's Cafe. The best restaurant in Harford County, according to the reader who called. Very good pasta dishes, a friend who knows his Italian food told me.

True, it doesn't quite fit into the upscale Italian cafe mode. There are no gourmet pizzas here. (But who cares when there's so much else to choose from?) More seriously, for those who like a glass of wine with their pasta, Scotto's didn't have a liquor license as of my visit. And in Harford County you aren't allowed to bring in your own bottle.

But Scotto's does have a window where you can look in the

kitchen and see the cooks tossing together such good things as fresh tomatoes and DeCecco pasta and lump crab meat over an open flame. (The recipes are from the owners' native Naples.) Very appetizing.

We had lots of time to watch because when we got there the hostess told us there was no record of our reservations (I had made them six hours before), and there were no tables in the no-smoking section. We would have to wait.

Now if I were a hostess at a new restaurant and that happened, I'd sit the disgruntled customers down at the bar, offer them a free soda and apologize profusely. But she ignored us until we got tired of waiting after half an hour and asked to sit in the smoking section.

Once seated, we were happier, because our waitress immediately brought us bruschette -- toasts brushed with olive oil, covered with seasoned chopped tomato and stuck under the broiler. Plus bread sticks with olive oil and grated Parmesan for dipping.

Those held us until our first courses arrived: a cold antipasto, a half order of gnocchi and pepper soup, the soup of the day. We devoured the antipasto, ignored the gnocchi after the first few bites, and gave the soup a mixed review.

Scotto's antipasto is a generous platter of fresh mozzarella, good-quality prosciutto and salami, pickled peppers and olives, and pimentos jazzed up with chopped garlic and parsley.

The gnocchi were chewy little balls of dough with a decent enough tomato sauce but not even one cheese, let alone the promised four.

The soup arrived lukewarm, and tasted more like a tomato sauce you might put on pasta than a soup made of peppers -- but it was a good tomato sauce, and I would have been happy if it had been hot.

We were less ambivalent about our main courses, all of which were pretty successful. Cappelini aragosta is a specialty of the house, with lobster meat, sun-dried tomatoes and a couple of different kinds of mushrooms tossed with heavy cream and pasta. Simple, but sometimes simple is best.

My personal favorite was a special of the day, boneless chicken breast with crab meat and chopped fresh tomatoes. I basically liked everything about it except that the cook had added pieces of fresh garlic just the size of the crab lumps. Biting into one of those when you're expecting crab meat isn't fun.

I've had better veal than we got in the vitello sorrentina, but for the price (all the veal dishes are around $11) I can hardly complain. The scaloppine were covered with prosciutto and mozzarella, then arranged with sauteed mushrooms and pasta in a tomato-tinged cream sauce. Don't think from what we ordered that everything is heavy cream and olive oil. Scotto's offers any number of low-fat, cholesterol-free meals that sound pretty good, like fettuccine gypsy: tomatoes, olives, artichokes and mushrooms with pasta in a white wine sauce.

Then you can eat one of Scotto's calorie-laden desserts guilt-free, like the chocolate mousse cake with crunchy espresso beans hidden here and there. But stay away from the tiramisu unless the waitress promises you it's been completely thawed.

Next: Linwood's

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