A culinary roller coaster

September 11, 1997|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A tree grows in Little Italy, or so it seems inside the main dining room at Della Notte. Surrounded by decorative street lamps and a glitter-washed mural of an Italian waterfront, the faux dogwood stands at the center of the room, shading a ring of tables under its canopy.

Dining al fresco is what the designers had in mind, an effect that's helped along by street views through soaring windows. But with all the columns and cascading roses, we couldn't help thinking that we were at the Italian pavilion at Epcot Center.

Don't misunderstand, we liked the fun atmosphere at this bustling restaurant and bakery, which opened as DiVivo's last year, and was renamed Della Notte in May when Theodore Julio took full ownership.

But like a tour through Epcot, there were highs and lows to our experience. Some of the food we sampled was so good, it rivaled that at the best Italian restaurants in the city. Other dishes were just mediocre.

Consider the appetizers we tried. Of four bruschetta slices, half worked (garlicky red pepper and rich olivata); half didn't (pale tomato and chicken liver). Mesclun salad with portobello mushrooms and cheese was at its summer freshest, but polenta triangles needed a better partner than the ground veal and tomato sauce that covered them.

Our favorite appetizer was the minestrone, with chunks of cauliflower, squash and carrots in a light tomato broth.

The biggest hit of the evening was the vitello portobello entree. Scallops of tender veal were paired with meaty slivers of mushroom in an intensely flavored Marsala wine sauce. Bits of chopped tomatoes, powerful black olives and pesto gave the dish extra pizzazz. It tasted much more updated than the typical veal Marsala. We also loved the long-roasted red potatoes, and the fresh green beans simmered in marinara, served alongside.

Among the other entrees we tried, fettuccine Mona Lisa was tossed in a pink cream sauce with quarter-size pieces of sausage, mushroom slices and fresh spinach. The pasta was cooked perfectly al dente, and the sauce was surprisingly light.

Potato gnocchi were less successful. Their texture was too soft and gummy. Cioppino seemed more like paella, with baby clams, squid, mussels and shrimp ladled around saffron rice in marinara sauce with peas. We missed the delicate seafood flavor of the traditional Italian stew.

For dessert, feather-light chocolate cake and gooey apple cake covered in crumbs were OK. They took a definite second to the knockout tiramisu gelato. The creamy, homemade scoop was ice cream and cake swirled into one, with all the wonderful coffee and liqueur flavors of the original. We only wished we had tried one of Della Notte's gelato sundaes. Three big scoops would have suited the four of us just fine.

Della Notte

Address: 801 Eastern Ave.

410-837-5500

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers, $5.95-$8.95; entrees, $9.95-$16.95

Pub Date: 9/11/97

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