There's no bar to terrific food Restaurant: Pauli Santi brings his champagne touch to the casual fare at his new place in Chase. @

April 13, 1997|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

Don't be discouraged by the roadside bar appearance, the "package goods" sign, the pit-beef stand next door or the parking lot crowded with pickup trucks. Don't turn around and run when you enter the smoky premises, which look like all bar and no dining room and sound like somebody should turn down the jukebox.

Just wait till you have your first bite of cioppino. The suave seafood broth is sparked by saffron and tomatoes and overflowing with mussels and clams in their shells, tender squid and plump shrimp.

Then you'll be glad you decided to try Santi's, Pauli Santi's new bar and grill.

If the name isn't immediately familiar, you may remember him as the chef-owner of Champagne Tony's in Federal Hill, which later moved to grander quarters in the Belvedere.

I always thought it was an uneasy fit. The serene, elegant John Eager Howard Room wasn't the right setting for Santi's exuberant style. His new place has a menu of casual fare that's even better than the complicated dishes he turned out before.

And once you get settled in the back dining area near the open kitchen, you realize Santi's is a nice place to be. It's spare, but the walls, with their charming sconces, are painted in warm, earthy colors. There are stylish black banquettes and decorative touches like bottles of herb-infused olive oil on the tables.

Santi's is a bar, but it's also a family restaurant. Pretty much everything on the menu is under $15, with lots of pastas and individual pizzas as well as a few carefully chosen entrees.

Have a first course like the fine "eggplant tower" of delicately fried eggplant layered with roasted peppers, provolone and pesto and a fresh-tasting tomato sauce followed by a salad, and you'll have a delicious meal for under $10.

That is, unless you can't resist the grilled Caesar salad, which costs a bit more. The heart of a head of romaine lettuce is placed in the brick oven just until it takes on a wonderful smoky flavor; then it's dressed -- still whole -- with an enticing vinaigrette. Shavings of authentic Parmesan and crisp toast rounds surround it.

That same brick oven turns out excellent pizzas, with thin, crisp crusts, sauce made with Italian plum tomatoes, good cheeses and various toppings. (I recommend the nontrendy carne piquante, with pepperoni and spicy Italian sausage.)

If you're in the mood for more of a dinner, hope the "white" lasagna with its layers of cloud-light bechamel, tender noodles, five cheeses and spinach is on the specials menu.

Only tough clams casino failed to please, although an intriguing soup of artichokes, tomatoes and cream was thicker than it should have been. And the bread pudding tasted more like bread than pudding.

But two other desserts fell into the wow category. The delicate, house-made tiramisu was surrounded with fresh raspberries; the creamy zabaglione sauce over fresh strawberries was even better.

When I first heard Santi had moved to the Essex area to open a restaurant, I thought of the talented Brian Boston, who did the same thing a few years ago. Things didn't work out, and his restaurant, Boston's, closed. (Don't feel sorry for him; he's become the corporate chef for the Peerce's restaurant group.)

But my guess is that Pauli Santi won't have the same problem. The bar crowd will be happy with the deli sandwiches, families will be happy with the pastas and pizzas, and Champagne Tony's fans will follow Santi to Chase because they crave his grilled Caesar salad and flavorful cioppino.

Santi's

Where: 3321 Eastern Blvd., Chase

Hours: Open Wednesday through Monday for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers: $4.25-$7.95, light fare and entrees: $6.25- $15.95. Major credit cards

Call: (410) 410-391-2725

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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