Worth The High Prices? It All Depends . . .

March 19, 1995|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Da Mimmo, 217 S. High St., (410) 727-6876. Open Mondays to Fridays for lunch and dinner, Saturdays and Sundays for dinner only. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Prices: appetizers, $8-$18; entrees, $11-$38. ***

Now the first thing you need to know about Da Mimmo is that it doesn't serve wine by the glass. At a restaurant where I ended up spending $275 before tip for four, I do think it would be nice if my guest could order a white wine instead of a vodka gimlet.

It's arrogant not to bring it to him. But as in the NBA, you can be very arrogant if you're very good. The question is: Is Da Mimmo the Charles Barkley of Baltimore restaurants?

At first glance, you wouldn't think so. Its dining rooms look like many other beloved dining rooms in Little Italy: small, intimate, cozy and slightly kitschy, with a miniature marble nude here and a funky little oil painting there.

The menu, too, didn't seem like anything special. These are the familiar pasta, seafood and veal dishes we know and sometimes love, from the spaghetti and meatballs to the shrimp fra diavolo to the veal saltimbocca.

But then the waiter arrived at our table and announced there were -- are you ready? -- 17 specials that evening. He proceeded to recite them and their ingredients and didn't stop until I panicked because I had blanked out somewhere between the fourth and 10th one and had to ask him to start over. Three pairs of eyes turned to stare daggers at me.

Each special, once I heard them all, sounded better than the last. We ended up ordering almost exclusively from the recited list. No one thought to ask what they cost, which is why we were somewhat surprised when we got the check to find that three of the appetizers were $15 while the fourth was $18; and two of the entrees were $35, while the third was $38. (I had ordered a main course from the regular menu, where entrees range from $11 to $26.)

I'm not saying the specials weren't worth it. I am saying that when prices are that out of line with the regular menu, you ought to warn your customers.

If you had asked the pickiest of my guests if the dishes were worth it, he would have answered a resounding yes. His tender homemade ravioli were plump with lobster, scallops and shrimp; and they had a creamy, fragile sauce that set them off perfectly.

For his main course he had ordered Da Mimmo's signature dish, a grilled veal chop the size of Utah. The delicate meat was sweetly flavorful with an edge of crisp fat. It was seasoned with olive oil and herbs, and those were all it needed. Spaghetti in tomato sauce came on the side; a small salad cost $3.50 more.

The enormous slab of grilled swordfish with onion and capers was almost as good, although a little salty for my taste. This was, though, a fantastic piece of fish, fresh and perfectly cooked with a faint smoky flavor.

Even my comparatively modest shrimp marinara was a cut above the usual crustaceans in tomato sauce -- the marinara was bright and fresh, the shrimp tender and fat.

But the most extravagant of our main courses, lobster tetrazzini, was a disappointment. The lobster had been so overcooked I would have sent it back if it had been mine. It was removed from the shell, cut up, tossed with a fabulously rich cream sauce and put back in the shell.

The guest who ordered it didn't go hungry. She had started with a large portobello mushroom mounded high with lump crab meat: a stuffed mushroom cap extraordinaire. Still, the best first course was mine. Tissue-thin slices of raw filet mignon were topped with a little onion and capers and arranged around luscious caponata (to call it eggplant salad doesn't do it justice) and slender triangles of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

I had more than enough to share with the guest who struck out with a "Beverly Hills" salad. It was an ugly concoction of radicchio, red pepper, tomato, peppers, homemade mozzarella, one artichoke heart, one shrimp and a very good vinaigrette. None of the promised arugula made an appearance.

When it came time for dessert, the waiter told us there wasn't much left. What there was fairly standard: a soft, wet tiramisu; spumoni ice cream and the like. But the cannoli was the best I've had in years, and ice cream with Godiva liqueur was pretty fair, too.

So was it worth it? I would say yes if you're willing to spend that kind of money for food alone. I go for the total package.

I don't, for instance, expect the menu in this expensive a restaurant to tell me "no substitutions" or "one check per table." Whatever happened to personalized service? (That's not to say everybody from the busboy to the waiter wasn't excellent; they all were.)

It didn't help that the office party at the table next to us had had a few too few wines by the glass and a few too many by the bottle. They were getting so raucous that when one of them needed quiet to make a call, she brought a portable phone over to the corner directly behind our table to talk. Now that was disconcerting.

) Next: Hampton's of Towson

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