An amicable family of Italian foods

March 12, 1998|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,Special to the Sun

Gourmet brick-oven pizza may be the headliner at Ricciuti's, but this Columbia restaurant also features a strong supporting cast: focaccia sandwiches, fresh salads and Italian staples from PTC Stromboli to eggplant Parmesan.

Owners James and Amy Ricciuti opened their bright Italian bistro about 18 months ago in the Hickory Ridge Village Center, dressed the place in a green and white scheme and hired a friendly, young staff to wait on tables.

Their brick pizza oven glows fiery hot at eye level behind the front counter. If the door is open, you can look straight in and see pizzas baking next to wood logs at temperatures up to 900 degrees, or so the menu says.

We had no reason to doubt it, after taking a bite of our pizza Bianca, made with fontina, mozzarella, Romano and creamy spoonfuls of ricotta cheese. The thin crust was cooked to a golden brown underneath and had just the right amount of chewiness. It was a hit with the cheese-loving, under-6-year-old crowd at our table.

Our giant vegetable Stromboli may have been in the oven a few minutes too long, but we liked it anyway. The chewy crust of this foot-long envelope of pizza dough was dark brown, but the broccoli, zucchini, mushrooms and onions inside retained their crispness. We cut off slices to dunk in chunky marinara. The classic version substitutes Capicola ham for some of the vegetables. At $5.75, each is big enough to share.

The grilled portobello sandwich got its pizazz from sun-dried tomatoes, roasted peppers and a light smear of guacamole. The simple meatball and provolone sandwich would have been better if the garlicky meatballs weren't so firm. Both sandwiches are served on Ricciuti's focaccia bread, which is soft enough not to overwhelm the fillings.

However, the dull, soft focaccia flopped when it was served cold with the creamy spinach and artichoke dip. Even grilled as the base for tomato bruschetta, it was a little too soft. We wanted a bread with more depth, flavor and texture. Some of Ricciuti's homemade pizza dough baked as a flat bread would have been better.

The best dish of the night was the surprisingly light lasagna, filled with spinach-studded ricotta cheese. We paired this generously sized portion ($7.25) with a house salad of crisp romaine, bell pepper rings and sliced Roma tomatoes. The house balsamic vinaigrette was a winner, too. It's so good and thick, Ricciuti's should bottle it.

Even before we ordered dinner, the kids at our table had decided on the brownie sundae for dessert. With scoops of vanilla gelato and drizzles of fudge sauce, the sundae kept them happy until the chocolate pizza arrived to steal the show. Soft, strudel-like pastry dough formed an oblong pizza, covered in raspberry preserve "sauce," melted white and dark chocolate "cheese," and fresh fruit - "pepperoni" bananas, kiwi slices and strawberries.

Grown-ups may prefer the less-sweet lemon torte, a delicate, sugar-dusted shortcake with lemon custard and pine nuts.

Ricciuti's Brick Oven Pizza

6420 Freetown Road, Columbia

410-531-0250

Hours: Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and daily for dinner

Credit cards: All major credit cards

Prices: Appetizers, $2.25-$6.95; entrees, $5.25-$10.50

Pub Date: 3/12/98

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