A welcome addition by any name

November 07, 1996|By Laura Rottenberg | Laura Rottenberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Let's have a little foreign-language lesson. In French, a "bistro" is a small cafe serving modest, down-to-earth French food and wine. In Italian, a "trattoria" is an informal restaurant or tavern serving simple Italian dishes. So, students, can a new North Charles Street hot spot really be an Italian "bistro"?

All semantic quibbles aside, Viccino Bistro is one of the more welcome additions to Baltimore's dining scene in a long time. Patrons of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and Lyric Theater and neighborhood denizens alike have been charmed by the updated Italian classics served by chef Chris Cherry (formerly of Tabrizi's and Polo Grill).

The dining room is long and narrow, a sophisticated study in sand and caramel colors. Walls are ragged in a soothing beige and coffee, and blond wood and deep green booths lend the dining room an intimate feeling. A display of watercolor landscapes adds to the room's warmth.

Meals begin with a nice touch. Bottled spring water is ceremoniously poured, each table having its own bottle. Baskets of focaccia bread and the now-ubiquitous bowl of olive oil are brought quickly. The bread, while tasty, is already so oily that additional dunking is superfluous.

The kitchen's strategy is to send out huge, decorative plates not overloaded with food. Consequently, dishes are, almost without exception, vibrant and inviting.

Traditional Caesar salad had just enough crisp romaine and golden croutons to make a pleasant first course. The dressing didn't pack the kind of anchovy and garlic punch that I like, but my dinner companion deemed it perfect. Another salad of leaf spinach was tossed in a very piquant balsamic vinaigrette, but the addition of caramelized onion and nutty roasted garlic mellowed the acidity and granted the salad a bit of refinement.

An appetizer of fried calamari was a good-sized mound of tender, greaseless rings of squid accompanied by a ramekin of spicy dipping sauce that brought out the sweetness in Italy's favorite cephalopod.

A great deal of attention is lavished on the presentation of entrees. Tuna lasagna brought a gorgeous plate sporting a free-form stack of fresh, blushing tuna fillets sandwiched with delicate squares of pasta. The rest of the plate was strewn with sauteed spinach and drizzled with a dusky, tomato-flecked sauce.

An entree of pan-roasted lamb loin turned out to be a huge fan of rosy slices of lamb nestled against a jumble of fresh mesclun greens (not "wilted," as the menu described them) and garnished with crunchy rosemary polenta sticks. The dish's slightly sweet demi glace-like sauce lifted the entree from lovely to truly memorable.

Desserts are just as stunning as the entrees but occasionally fall into the "style over substance" category. A crisp banana cannelloni is among the best offerings. A whole banana is rolled in thin pastry and fried, cut on the bias and served jauntily upright with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and bittersweet chocolate sauce. Chocolate ravioli with a pouf of white chocolate mousse, on the other hand, looked great but failed to please. The modeling chocolate had a waxy taste and consistency, and the mousse was without flavor.

The wine list might benefit from a few more moderately priced wines. Our selection, a 1994 Robert Mondavi chardonnay from the Santa Cruz Mountains, was in the middle of the pack, price-wise, at $38. Simpler, more rustic table wines might suit the menu well.

Viccino Bistro

1317 N. Charles St.

(410) 347-0349

Hours: Open Monday through Saturdays for lunch and dinner; dinner only on Sundays

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: appetizers $4.25-$10.75; entrees $5.00-$21.00

Pub Date: 11/07/96

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