A cafe that isn't what you'd expect Restaurant: Cafe Troia -- not to be confused with Troia the Bistro at the Walters -- is all about comfort food reinvented with style.

March 09, 1997|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

Good restaurants have personalities all their own. If I tell you that Cafe Troia in Towson is an Italian restaurant, don't have any preconceptions. It's not like other Italian restaurants you've been to.

Cafe Troia is just that. A cafe. In spite of having three dining rooms and a sophisticated, expensive menu, it seems homey and unprepossessing -- very much the neighborhood place to eat. Customers on both sides of us were regulars; they greeted our waiter by name.

So it comes as no surprise that Nonna's chicken soup is the zuppa del giorno. This is a lovely, fragile chicken soup: a soothing, homemade broth with snippets of white-meat chicken, rice and bits of carrot for color. Nonna is owner Gino Troia's mother -- what could be homier?

But then what do you make of carpaccio di pesce spada? It's a spectacular composition of fresh arugula leaves draped with translucently thin slices of raw swordfish. Black caviar and the crunch of pine nuts are sensational additions, and the light, lemony dressing ties the ingredients together beautifully. Hardly home-style cooking.

Although Cafe Troia has some formal dinners, what chef Mark Denoncourt does best, to my mind, are the bistro dishes -- not elaborate but relying on quality ingredients and a deft hand. These might be plump mussels served in an invigorating broth of white wine and just a touch of tomato, with slices of grilled bread tucked around them. Or pastas with sauces like a fresh-tasting tomato and pancetta or four cheeses and walnuts.

You could come here for supper and share a sampler of Troia's antipasti with your friends. With the cafe's good rolls and a glass of wine, it's a meal in itself. The plate might include thin slices of grilled eggplant, prosciutto, roasted sweet peppers and olives, fresh mozzarella, ruby-red plum tomatoes (even in the dead of winter) and creamy goat cheese.

If you do want something more elaborate, Cafe Troia's osso bucco captures the essence of the place: comforting peasant food reinvented with style. The veal shanks, meaty and flavorful, are winningly sauced. The accompaniment might be polenta or fresh vegetables like cauliflower with raisins and olives (a happy combination of sweet and salt) or the first tender-crisp asparagus of spring.

If there are any disappointments to be had here, they would be the desserts. Not that the tiramisu isn't perfectly presentable; it simply isn't any better or worse than other tiramisus. A homemade apple tart was heavier than you might expect, given the subtlety of the rest of the food.

Cafe Troia hasn't gotten much press lately -- it's been overshadowed by Gino Troia's new restaurant, Troia the Bistro at the Walters. (Not to mention the chain restaurants that seem to open up endlessly in Towson.) But if you haven't been recently, the original Troia is worth a return visit. Our meal was a solid winner.

Cafe Troia

xTC Where: 28 W. Allegheny Ave.

Hours: Open Monday through Friday for lunch, every day for dinner

Prices: first courses, $5-$10.50; main courses, $12-$22. Major credit cards

Call: (410) 337-0133

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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