In Little Italy, Gettng A Little Experimental

DINING OUT

September 25, 1994|By ELIZABETH LARGE

The Neapolitan, 915 Fawn St., (410) 547-1630. Ope Tuesdays to Saturdays, noon to 11 p.m., Sundays, 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Prices: appetizers, $2.95-$5.95; entrees, $6.95-$16.95. ***

A new restaurant in Little Italy is usually news, but the Neapolitan opened with no fanfare late last year. I came upon the neighborhood's latest restaurant (No. 21, according to our waiter's reckoning) by chance, when I was looking for a different place.

It's a bit off the beaten track -- and unassuming, to say the least. But the sandwich board outside promised a couple of interesting specials, the posted menu was definitely not run-of-the-mill, and mint was growing in a huge urn at the entrance. Very appealing.

The most frequent criticism leveled against Little Italy is that the places seem interchangeable: the same pastas, the same red sauce, the same shrimp scampi. That's very much less true than it used to be, but no one could ever accuse the Neapolitan of being like any other restaurant. This is the place to go when you're feeling a little experimental.

First of all, when a restaurant has a name like Neapolitan, you wouldn't expect it to specialize in northern Italian food. But it does. If I told you only that it's tiny, and basically offers pizza and pasta, you'd get the wrong idea. The pizza might be a wild mushroom pizza or a Middle Eastern pizza with ground lamb, goat cheese and a garlic crust. The pastas are homemade; they could be black-and-white striped ravioli, say, or fettuccine with smoked salmon.

The name was inherited from a former restaurant on the same spot. Inside the front door, the hall looks as if it were from another era, perhaps left over from the old Neapolitan, with old-fashioned wallpaper, sconces, yellowed photographs -- even a review of that earlier restaurant. Peek into the kitchen on your right as you walk in. It's pretty Spartan: your basic pizzeria kitchen.

In back, though, is a small, pleasant dining room, with white walls hung with watercolors from a local gallery, lacy curtains in the window, white tablecloths with maroon napkins and a single rose on each table. You can't guess from its looks what sort of food you'll be getting.

The background music -- I use both words loosely -- was rock and roll, just loud enough so you couldn't hear what the person across the table from you was saying even if he or she shouted. In some of the places I've eaten, I wouldn't even notice. Here, in this pretty little dining room, it was obnoxious. The third time we asked the waiter to lower the volume -- and he did every time -- he gave up and put on Miles Davis, which suited us fine.

If you want wine with dinner (and who would want wine with Italian food), you'll have to bring your own. Or the waiter will direct you to the package goods counter at DeNittis' (which, by the time you read this, may have changed its name to Panino's). The Neapolitan doesn't charge a corkage fee, but our waiter did take the wine bucket away with a glass or so left in the bottle. When we were getting ready to go and asked him what had happened to it, he said it was empty.

The Sunday evening we were there, the kitchen had run out of pizza dough, which our waiter told us is made on the premises. That meant half the menu was no longer available. We ended up happy with the other half, though, starting with a "Portabella Magnifico," the whole woodsy mushroom marinated and grilled over hickory, then sauced with duxelles and creme fraiche. The result was sumptuous. A thin slice or two of cultivated mushroom decorated it artistically, along with a confetti of red pepper and chopped parsley.

Sounds a little highbrow for you? Anyone would be happy with the pane farcite, a fat little loaf of garlic bread split and filled with mozzarella, Romano and, because we couldn't make up our mind, two sauces: pesto on one end and marinara on the other. It was baked and served hot for a deliciously messy first course.

The Neapolitan's one soup in August was gazpacho, chilled and filled with fresh vegetables. With its pattern of creme fraiche on top, it was almost too beautiful to eat. Unfortunately, a too-heavy hand with the hot pepper seasoning kept the fresh flavor of the vegetables from coming through.

The kitchen tosses fettuccine with bits of smoked salmon, fresh tomatoes, garlic and minced red and yellow pepper and a light cream sauce. It's wonderfully rich but not overwhelmingly heavy.

The ravioli di giorno that evening were plump black-and-white-striped pillows, stuffed with minced mushrooms and sauced with cream. Delicious, but without the combination of textures and flavors that made the fettuccine so appealing. You'd do better to get a half order as a first course.

For variety's sake, I ordered manzo agnello radiatore, slices of beef and ground lamb in a balsamic-rosemary marinade. The meat's faintly sweet-tartness has the appeal of, for want of a better comparison, sauerbraten. It was supposed to be tossed with vegetables and a tomato sauce, but you can't get away from pasta here. The meat was placed on a bed of corkscrew pasta, tossed with a little fresh tomato. It wasn't what I expected, but Neapolitan's pasta is good enough that I couldn't complain.

I also didn't expect Neapolitan to have such fine, fresh tasting desserts on a Sunday night. There were only two, a truffle cheesecake that was pure chocolate heaven, and my favorite, a moist, luscious apple cake. I suppose they were fresh because Neapolitan realizes its limitations and works within them: You don't get much variety here, but what you get is fresh and very good.

Next: Tabrizi's

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