Like other restaurants in old Fells Point rowhouses, Tello's Admiral's Cup is loaded with atmosphere. Unlike other Fells Point restaurants, it doesn't have much else to recommend it.
No, I'm wrong. The bread. This place has great bread, brought in from Philadelphia. But it's all downhill from there.
On the ground floor, Tello's Admiral's Cup is a popular neighborhood bar. There was live music even on a weeknight. Upstairs the small dining rooms are appealing, with fireplaces, candlelight, charmingly uneven floors and an unobtrusive nautical decor.
Tello's has Italian cuisine and seafood, with a traditional and fairly pricey menu. We started off simply. Minestrone tasted like tomato soup with vegetables, and cream of spinach soup was a salty combination of milk and flour with pureed spinach. Oysters on the half shell were tiny, but briny and sweet. They didn't prepare me for the clams casino, small and gritty, smothered in melted cheese with undercooked bacon that had such an off-smell it permeated the air unpleasantly long after I had pushed the plate away.
Still, we had that bread. We could eat it and hope the main courses would be better.
And they were, all things being relative.
Shrimp fra diavolo were fresh, and there was a huge amount of linguine and spicy marinara sauce. I wasn't crazy about the sweetness of the sauce, though. Chicken ala Florentine was also plentiful, with spinach, melted cheese and fettuccine -- but it was a basically uninspired dish. For $15, with not even a salad included, I want inspiration.
Veal Franchaise cost a couple of dollars more and consisted of three thin little scallops of veal, heavy with egg batter, in a mild lemon butter. It was flanked by rice that had no discernible flavoring but was bright orange. Green beans were fresh but overcooked.
Finally we tried a pasta dish, baked stuffed shells. Its ricotta cheese filling was, for some reason, quite liquid. The salad that came with the pasta featured limp lettuce, wedges of winter tomato and a couple of ripe olives. Decent vinaigrette, though.
Desserts are traditional Italian restaurant desserts like cannoli, tortoni and spumoni, as well as a pretty good chocolate chip cheesecake and a concoction of white and chocolate mousse called a tuxedo cake that should have been fabulous but wasn't.
The problem is that Tello's is too close to Little Italy to get away with serving mediocre Italian food at these prices. And yet it does get away with it, judging from the number of people eating there on a Tuesday night. Maybe some of the other Maryland seafood dishes -- the few that there are on the menu -- are a better bet. Or maybe Tello's success is just another example of location, location, location.
Tello's Admiral's Cup
1645 Thames St.
Hours: Tuesday to Thursday, noon to 9 p.m.; Friday, noon to 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, 1 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday 1 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.
Features: Italian, seafood
Non-smoking section? yes
Prices: Appetizers, $2.50-$10.95; entrees, $8.50-$18.95
Call: (410) 327-7800