Bertucci's, Food Court, Owings Mills Mall, (410) 356-5515. Open every day for lunch and dinner. Major credit cards. No-smoking Aarea: yes. Wheelchair accessible: yes. Prices: appetizers, $2.80- $6.50; entrees: $5.95-$12.95.
Bertucci's, the new pizzeria in the Owings Mills Mall, has all the earmarks of a mall restaurant. The entrance is off the food court. The restaurant is part of a chain, the first of several Bertucci's in Maryland. It's big, so it can serve lots of shoppers. There's an excellent kids menu, with nothing costing over $3.25. (Adults, by the way, can get anything on the menu for under $10 as long as they don't order a large pizza.) And the service is in the faster than a speeding bullet category: Bertucci's offers express lunches, and at dinner you'll get your pizza sooner than some places can make you a tuna sandwich.
With all this going for it, why should we expect the food to be good as well? Be grateful you can get in and out for under $25 for two and still have time to pick up your kid's field hockey cleats at the Foot Locker.
But here's the surprise. The food is pretty good, and Bertucci's is a better-looking restaurant than you have any right to expect, given where it's located. The entrance makes you forget you're anywhere near a mall, with its architectural lines, handsome bar, contemporary lighting and gleaming bare-wood floors. The bathrooms in back are gorgeous, done in faux mahogany, faux marble, faux granite and real tile. The huge dining room in between doesn't quite reach the design heights of either, but it's a pleasant room, with soft peach sponge-painted walls, stylish brick pizza ovens and a remarkable shortage of kitsch. The decor is clean-lined to the point of bareness, but it works.
Bertucci's menu is huge -- all pastas and pizzas. There are exceptions: You could make a meal of the grilled chicken Caesar salad, with its crisp greens, generous strips of white meat, homemade croutons and good, garlicky dressing. For that matter, you could make a meal of the antipasto; but technically it's an appetizer. Certainly it's something two could share. The plate was overflowing with chunks of grilled chicken breast coated in pesto sauce, tomato salad with a little ball of mozzarella, delicious roasted red and green peppers, marinated artichoke hearts, a sharp fontinella and paper-thin slices of prosciutto. No sign of the promised cold eggplant Parmesan, but I can't say we missed it.
With the antipasto came excellent, freshly baked bread sticks. For some reason our meal at Bertucci's started with soft, underbaked rolls; too bad the restaurant didn't serve those bread sticks instead. We also had an order of garlic bread, made with olive oil and chopped garlic -- too much garlic for me, but everyone else loved it.
You could begin with several different soups; I recommend the sausage soup -- not at all as heavy as it sounds. The hot, full-bodied broth held rice, fresh spinach, tomatoes and bits of crumbled sausage. A little melted mozzarella made it even more appealing.
But surely most customers head straight for the pizzas. I've vowed in the past never to order pizza combinations over No. 5 -- I hate strange pizzas -- but none of the 17 varieties sounded too dreadful. And our choice, Nolio, was almost superb.
I say almost because the thin crust was soft instead of having that wonderful crispness brick ovens usually produce. My guess is that the staff was so anxious to get it out quickly (the pizza arrived before we'd finished our first courses), it simply wasn't cooked long enough.
I would have thought that a pizza that didn't have a good crust wouldn't be edible, but the topping was fabulous. Instead of tomato sauce, it had a cream sauce with extra Romano cheese. On top were caramelized onions and thin slivers of prosciutto. Wow.
We also ordered one of Bertucci's "thick pies," and this time the topping didn't make up for the soft crust. A "Thick Pie Originale" had too much crust not to be crusty, if you know what I mean. The classic tomato sauce and mozzarella had been supplemented with excellent roasted green peppers and spicy Italian sausage, but even they couldn't save it.
Bertucci's has very simple pastas, done pretty well, such as tender shells stuffed with ricotta in a light tomato sauce. (The tomato-based sauces are as good here as you'll get at some of Baltimore's fanciest Italian restaurants.) Where the kitchen falls down is with a dish like cioppino, the San Francisco fish stew -- served over rigatoni at Bertucci's. The sauce of tomatoes and white wine was fine, but the fillet of sole was uninteresting, the shrimp small and overcooked, the scallops almost nonexistent. Good mussels, though.
Bertucci's banks on the fact that once you've eaten a deep-dish pizza or a large helping of pasta you're going to be in the mood for a light dessert like cream puffs filled with ice cream and smothered in hot fudge sauce. Each dessert on the menu is richer than the last. The only real dud was a cannoli, which we had to wait for because the waitress said the kitchen was "mixing some more up." Whether that meant the filling actually was a mix wasn't clear, but from the taste it could have been.