Cozy Setting, Smooth Service, Bumpy Meal

February 20, 1994|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Enrico's, 204 E. Joppa Road, Towson, (410) 821-8888. Open Mondays to Fridays for lunch, every day for dinner. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: yes. Prices: appetizers, $2.95-$6.95; entrees, $8.95-$26. * *

It has a new name: Enrico's. There's a brand-new menu, although it's still Italian, and the dining room has just been redecorated. It's not Dici Naz Velleggia's anymore, but the ownership hasn't changed -- the "new" restaurant is run by son Mark.

Enrico's reminds me of another era, where stylish wasn't equated with uncomfortable chairs and noisy dining rooms. This is never going to be a handsome restaurant; the too-low drop ceilings see to that. But there are nice wraparound windows, upholstered armchairs for relaxed seating, soft lights, fresh white napery, candles and tiny orchids on each table. On Tuesdays, and Thursdays to Saturdays, Enrico's has live music in the bar next to a tiny dance floor. (It's a popular bar, so things can get a bit raucous.)

Our evening there got off to a shaky start. I had asked for no-smoking seating when I made reservations, so I assumed that's where we were being seated. By the time the people at the table next to us lit up, we were already eating our salads and didn't want to move. I can, however, see why the maitre d' seated us where he did without asking. All the best seats are in smoking.

Enrico's new menu has two distinct personalities. You can grab a bite to eat when you're in a hurry (maybe an Italian steak sandwich or a pasta) or be pampered with quite an elaborate -- and expensive -- night out. We chose the latter route, a somewhat bumpy road.

Take our first courses. Stuffed jumbo shrimp were nothing short of superb. The fat shrimp were piled with beautiful lumps of crab meat and enhanced with a tangy mayonnaise flavored with mustard and capers. But clams caracus had an impenetrable blanket of melted mozzarella as well as minced prosciutto. Fine if you don't care to actually taste the seafood. A half-order of spinach fettuccine with Italian wild mushroom sauce sounded great, but the pasta was tossed with a slightly bitter marinara sauce that had only a slice or two of porcini and portobello mushrooms.

If you get a salad, order the house dressing on the side. Otherwise the lettuce may be as limp as ours was -- as though it had been tossed earlier in the day. It's a standard salad except for the bits of cantaloupe in with the tomatoes, onion and cucumber. (The jury is still out on this one.) I preferred the creamy toasted sesame dressing to the house Italian; it's made with mascarpone cheese as well as mayonnaise, and the sesame seeds give it pizazz.

One of the restaurant's most popular dishes, our waitress told us, is veal Alexandra. The veal itself was tender but rather tasteless. Its bechamel sauce was bland, no other word for it. Even golden raisins and bits of prosciutto didn't jazz up the plain white sauce that covered the veal and the side of spaghetti. If there were the promised pine nuts, I didn't see them.

I noticed any number of dishes on the menu sauced with bechamel (a combination of flour and milk that I think of as the beginnings of a sauce, not the finished product). I'd stay away from them.

Part of Enrico's menu is mix-and-match: That is, you choose the kind of pasta or fish you want, how you want it prepared, and what you want it sauced with. For instance, a good, fresh tuna steak -- although it was grilled to the point of dryness -- had a great sauce. We paid a couple of dollars extra for the snowy lumps of crab swimming in a delicate puree of red peppers and cream, but it was worth it.

The most all-around successful entree was a New York strip, pink and juicy, in a pool of full-bodied but subtle wine sauce. The slightly sweet Marsala set off the portobello and porcini mushrooms beautifully; too bad someone in the kitchen had sprinkled on the dried rosemary with a heavy hand. It came with good Italian roasted potatoes, which were charred a bit more than they should have been around the edges. A side dish of fresh green beans and julienne carrots looked overcooked but ++ tasted great.

Don't, by the way, bother ordering garlic bread. The soft bread had garlic and grated cheese and herbs. What it lacked was any sort of crustiness.

Things looked up a bit when we got to dessert. Enrico's does the classic cannoli very well, with a crisp shell; an extra-creamy, extra-smooth cheese filling; and no chocolate chips. A chocolate cake with chocolate jimmies in its icing wasn't the fanciest chocolate dessert you've ever had at a restaurant, but it would satisfy your chocolate longings. And a slim slice of raspberry cheesecake was light and more refreshing than it sounds.

All in all, one of the more uneven meals I've had lately. But in spite of the ups and downs, we left Enrico's in a better mood than you might expect. That's because it's such a comfortable restaurant, and the staff is so pleasant, and because you can take a turn around the dance floor while you're waiting for dessert.

Next: The Brass Elephant

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