'Cal-Ital' succeeds at Paolo's

March 13, 1997|By Laura Rottenberg | Laura Rottenberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In the early '90s, the Cal-Ital bistro was a new species in Baltimore. We'd seen them in other cities: bustling, minimalist-chic restaurants serving dazzling vegetable-heavy fare to an equally stunning young professional crowd. Paolo's, -- with a location in Towson and another in the Light Street Pavilion of Harborplace was among the area's first examples of the breed. Others have come and gone, but after nearly a decade, Paolo's continues to age gracefully.

The parent company, Capital Restaurant Concepts, has maintained a stylish interior -- open show kitchen, crackling brick oven, and lots of black marble and Italian track lighting -- and a contemporary, affordable menu of light, unfussy pastas, salads and entrees. Meals begin with a little basket of pillowy, soft house-made breadsticks and a crock of mottled green olive tapenade. If the breadsticks are warm, it's easy to plow through a basket or two, dabbing them in the spread redolent of garlic, cracked green olives and mashed chick peas.

As at any California-style eatery worth its salt, salads and veggie dishes are star players on the Paolo's roster. Our favorite starter was the Paolo's salad. A plate of bite-sized arugula, radicchio and romaine leaves -- littered with toasted pine nuts, pitted calamata olives and hunks of Gorgonzola -- was tossed in just the right amount of subtle raspberry- hazelnut vinaigrette. The Caesar salad was almost as good. Although the dressing didn't have the kind of garlic/anchovy muscle that I relish, the Sardinian flatbread croutons (think crisp pizza crust sans sauce) lent interest.

The evening's special soup, a Tuscan white bean, was luxurious. A thick broth infused with the flavors of rosemary and applewood-smoked bacon suspended still-firm whole beans. We also had the perfect vegetable appetizer for people who don't like vegetables: crispy Italian eggplant. Thin slices of long Japanese eggplant were thoroughly disguised in a golden bread-crumb jacket, served with a kicky marinara sauce and a little bundle of fresh goat cheese.

Attention is also lavished on vegetarian entrees. The evening's special open-faced ravioli turned out to be a pretty bowl strewn with slithery squares of yellow and green pasta, roasted fennel and onion and tender asparagus tips, all tossed in a herbaceous, buttery sauce.

Even with the meat entrees, vegetable side dishes are not

neglected. A butter-tender rare filet mignon came covered with a fright wig of frizzled leeks and was perched on a mound of delicious lumpy mashed potatoes. The rest of the plate sported little fingers of roasted vegetables (heavy on what we think was rutabaga) and pools of concentrated rosemary jus.

Our only clunker came from the wood-burning oven. We'd had nicely done pizzas at Paolo's before, but the evening's special pie of sliced chicken breast, asparagus tips, red onions and a whole lotta cheese ended up being bland and dry. The promised grilled tomato salsa was nowhere to be seen.

A dessert hint: It may not look as pretty as some of the other options, but the cappuccino crema (a velvety custard) is about as intense and rich as a dessert can get. The restaurant turns out a nice tiramisu (you know, the ubiquitous liqueur-soaked ladyfingers layered with sweetened mascarpone cheese) and an elegant changing selection of sorbets (mango, raspberry and chocolate on our visit).

One of the most sophisticated things about Paolo's is its small wine menu. A largely Italian list, it is supplemented with carefully chosen bottlings from California in all price levels. The daily special list also features a number of interesting wines, offered .. by the bottle or glass -- maybe a brambly Zinfandel from Sonoma County or the swank Cuvee Z from Zaca Mesa Vineyards in Santa Barbara.

Paolo's

Towson Commons

1 W. Pennsylvania Ave., Towson

(410) 321-7000

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner, brunch on Sunday

Credit cards: Major credit cards

Prices: Appetizers, $4.95-$8.95; entrees, $7.95-$16.95

Pub Date: 3/13/97

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