One Surprise After Another

DINING OUT

December 26, 1993|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Palermo's Grill, 106 W. Padonia Road, (410) 252-0600. AE, DC, MC, V. Open every day for lunch and dinner. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: yes. Prices: appetizers, $3.95-$9.95; entrees: $8.95-$19.95. I had heard that Timonium's newest restaurant was named after baseball umpire Steve Palermo, so in the back of my mind I was expecting a sports bar.

And I remembered the Parlay Cafe, a down-at-the-heels bar-restaurant that had previously occupied the space at 106 W. Padonia Road, so I wasn't expecting much in the way of atmosphere at Palermo's Grill.

I knew owners Pam and Jerry Schiavino had first met Palermo in Little Italy, so I thought their restaurant would be a Little Italy-type place. (By that I mean I expected it to serve the classic southern Italian cuisine Baltimoreans know and love.)

I was wrong on just about every count.

Not that you'd know it from the unprepossessing entrance. Palermo's is in a strip shopping center, and the restaurant's sign out front features a large baseball diamond. But enter the dining room and there's no baseball memorabilia to be seen. (The bar next to it, however, is a different story.) The space has been divided into several cozy dining areas. Colors are soft and warm, the seats are comfortable, the tables are covered with white napery. It's a somewhat formal, very comfortable, almost pretty setting. Here you can buy a bottle of Dom Perignon for $100 as well as a Miller Lite for $1.50.

The menu comes as something of a surprise, too. Yes, it has its share of Italian dishes, but you can tell the owners have added their own favorites, Italian or not. The house specialty, for instance, is baby back ribs.

These can be had as a first course or an entree with french fries and coleslaw. They aren't serious, down-home smoked ribs, but a pleasant upscale suburban variety. Steamed and grilled, they were meaty and fall-off-the-bone tender, with a spicy-sweet barbecue sauce.

Many of the first courses are bar food -- like ribs and potato skins -- or shellfish, raw and steamed. You can get a good cold NTC antipasto plate, prettily arranged with translucently thin prosciutto, roasted and marinated red and green peppers and eggplant, feta cheese and olives. None of the promised pepperoncini, though. Palermo's has good Italian bread to go with it, and thin, crisp, garlicky bread sticks.

All the dishes are attractively garnished, usually with sprigs of watercress or fresh basil leaves. A hot first course of eggplant slices rolled around cheese and spinach not only tasted good but was striking looking with its scarlet tomato sauce and bright green chopped parsley.

Palermo's homemade soups include crab, cream of crab and French onion. The one Italian offering was superb: meltingly tender cheese tortellini in a delicate chicken broth sprinkled lightly with Parmesan. Sometimes the simplest is the best.

Palermo's doesn't do everything right. The house salad might as well have been tossed the night before; that's how limp and oily the lettuce was. And a kitchen that uses fresh basil leaves could come up with something more interesting than red onions and winter tomatoes in its salad.

Another misstep was the seasoning of the penne arrabiata -- spicier than I liked, although it (and the other pastas we saw) was gorgeous to look at. It was served in a huge flat bowl, the tender penne tossed with a fresh-tasting tomato sauce flavored with basil and garlic, melting cheese and bits of good bacon.

Best of all our main courses was a thick piece of beautifully fresh grilled swordfish laid on a pool of silky mustard sauce studded with mustard seeds. It went well with the long-grain and wild rice and fresh spinach that flanked it.

Turkey cutlets dipped in an egg batter and sauteed, then sauced with lemon butter, were a bit chewy, but they were nicely set off by the tangy capers in the sauce. The vegetable of the day was fresh snow peas sauteed with garlic until just tender.

Palermo's has tiramisu for dessert. All the tiramisu I've been eating at every restaurant I've been to lately is beginning to run together into one soft, wet, vaguely rum-flavored mush of ladyfingers and mascarpone cheese.

Palermo's chocolate bread pudding, however, is the real specialty. Made from a family recipe, it's staggeringly good. The warm, moist, deeply chocolate pudding was surrounded by a creamy custard sauce gently flavored with brandy. Fabulous.

Next: Donna's Restaurant

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