And easy on the wallet

SPUNKY, HIP

Restaurant: Vespa, an Italian cafe and wine bar, may be just what young sophisticates are looking for

Sunday Gourmet

April 11, 1999|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

Listen up, hip young Baltimoreans. Looking for a place with the pizazz of, say, a Spike & Charlie's but with modestly priced food? Well, look no further than the spunky new Vespa in Federal Hill.

The Italian cafe and wine bar has connections with Spike & Charlie's through restaurateur Spike Gjerde, who's a partner, although Vespa is very much its own place. The dining room is striking, its high-tech minimalism softened by the mix of warm, earthy colors on the walls and touches like sueded banquettes and fresh flowers. We couldn't quite remember what was left over from when the place was Pimella's Market Cafe -- the handsome tile floor? the corrugated aluminum wall? -- but it's all been integrated into a harmonious whole.

When many people hear the word "Vespa," they think of a zippy little motor scooter; and, indeed, the new restaurant is young and fun. But a learned guest pointed out that vespa means "wasp" in Italian. That's definitely not appropriate. No nasty little surprises here.

Vespa is the perfect neighborhood restaurant, with lots on the menu for an inexpensive supper after a hard day at work. But it also has enough style, and the food is good enough, to draw customers from across town. The moderately priced list of Italian wines, weighted toward the reds, is appealing. What's not to like?

Well, a couple of things. You may have trouble getting a table. And like any place that's an instant success, Vespa sometimes has trouble keeping up. An absolutely delicious, delicately creamy mushroom risotto bisque, for instance, arrived at room temperature -- presumably because it waited on a counter somewhere.

Our table was divided in its opinion of the pizzas. I didn't mind the fact that the crust was grilled and then toppings added; the others did.

I would have liked a bit more meaty Bolognese sauce on the corkscrew pasta; the friend who ordered it liked it the way it was. I prefer a restaurant that serves more vegetables; here the emphasis is on meats and starches.

But what meats and starches. The most expensive item on the menu, a glorious hunk of tenderloin, came pink and juicy, extravagantly sauced and teamed with an earthy mushroom risotto. A juicy half-chicken with a crisp, lemon-scented skin was dramatically arranged on triangles of golden polenta. (A few greens were involved here, a thin layer between the chicken and polenta.)

You don't need to order complete meals like these. There are plenty of appetizers that combined with a salad will do as a light supper. The antipasto Vespa outshone them all: a garlicky white bean puree, tissue-thin slices of prosciutto, fresh mozzarella drizzled with olive oil, slivers of frittata, full-flavored olives, large capers with stems and roasted garlic cloves. With Vespa's excellent focaccia and a glass of wine, you need nothing more.

But if you wanted something more, you might have Vespa's fried calamari with fiery slivers of cherry peppers, or a fine house salad with red lettuce, ruby red plum tomatoes and polenta croutons. I was less enamored of the bread salad, which is traditionally a summer salad filled with tomatoes and cucumbers. Here the bread dominated the roasted red peppers.

Spike & Charlie's is known for its desserts, so it was no surprise that all four choices at Vespa's that evening sounded tempting -- hazelnut cheesecake, an Italian version of a napoleon, tiramisu, and an individual apple tart. Interestingly, we ended up fighting over the warm, slightly caramelized apple tart while we ignored the others. It turned out the other three were made in house, while the tart, according to our waitress, was the product of Spike & Charlie's bakery.

VESPA

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: *** 1/2

Where: 1117-21 S. Charles St.

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner, Sunday for brunch

Prices: Appetizers: $3-$9; pizzas, pastas and main courses: $6-$18

Call: 410-385-0355

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

Pub Date: 04/11/99

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