Building on a name

Restaurant: New owners have done well with Piccola Roma in Annapolis.

Sunday Gourmet

June 27, 1999|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

What's in a name? Perhaps a change of direction for a restaurant. It can be subtle -- recently Trattoria La Piccola Roma became Ristorante Piccola Roma when new owners took over.

The new owners are Arturo Silvestrini and Fausto Calabria, two aerospace engineers. Silvestrini's wife, Silvana Recine, manages Piccola Roma for them. She's an experienced restaurateur, whose family is involved with several places in Washington. Her vision is to make Piccola Roma a bit more of a white-tablecloth restaurant -- a little less a trattoria -- while not losing its comfortable feeling. She wants to put more emphasis on polished service, and no one could argue with that. As for the food, Recine says she'll change the menu "a little bit at a time."

The new owners' renovations to this pretty little dining room are minor -- mostly painting and freshening it up. It has the good feeling of a casual restaurant where food is taken seriously. We're seated in a cozy nook in front of the picture window overlooking Main Street, but there really isn't a bad seat in the house.

Piccola Roma's menu is imaginative, short enough so you don't feel the kitchen is attempting too much, and reasonably priced. The entrees, averaging $15, come with a salad as well as vegetables. It's a pretty salad, with upscale greens, a sprinkling of pistachios and a fine balsamic vinaigrette. It would be even better without the orange slices and without tomatoes until local summer tomatoes come in.

The new menu's greatest flaw is that even among the "Seasonal Selections" there's nothing that sounds very summery. On a sweltering night, for instance, the soups are minestrone and fish soup.

Still, we find when our dinner arrives that dishes are less heavy than we thought they would be.

To start, there are grilled shrimp that have a lovely smoky flavor. A tangy artichoke relish complements them beautifully. Fresh mozzarella layered with grilled eggplant, red peppers and tomatoes will be wonderful with summer tomatoes. But best of all our appetizers are juicy snails in a Sambuca sauce. Its slight licorice edge echoes the flavor of the grilled fennel underneath.

As for our main courses, a broiled lobster tail, juicy and sweet, plays off the delicate white meat of two veal medallions. Their white wine sauce, sparked with the Italian liqueur Tuaca, is a mere whisper on the plate. Spinach adds a fresh jolt of flavor and color.

For pasta fanciers, pale-green and cream-colored fettuccine are intertwined with lumps of crab meat, miniature scallops and small, plump shrimp. The creamy sauce, skillfully made, has fragrant notes of thyme and lemon.

A boneless breast of chicken is poached until it's fork-tender, then paired with artichoke hearts or a combination of pears, cinnamon and Gorgonzola. (The latter concoction is a bit too sweet and cinnamony for my taste, but my guest loved it.)

Attention is paid to the looks of the food here. Only the fish baked in parchment isn't as beautiful as it is good. The tilapia fillet is fresh, delicate and moist; but the orzo alongside is unattractively dark, almost burnt-looking (although it doesn't taste burnt).

Only three desserts are available this night. When we say we'll get one of each to share, they are thoughtfully presented on one large plate decorated with blueberries and raspberry coulis, with small plates for each of us. The best is Piccola Roma's version of tiramisu, so feathery light it practically floats off the plate -- but, of course, wickedly rich. All the desserts are chocolate or chocolate-flavored (the tiramisu the least so); those who aren't addicts are out of luck.

Perhaps the highest praise I can give to Piccola Roma is that not only is the food good, but we don't even notice the service. The meal is well-paced. We never have to wait longer than we should or wonder when our water glasses will get filled. When we're ready for the check, the check is ready for us. It isn't luxe service -- the hostess is, after all, wearing walking shorts -- but professional and very pleasant.

RISTORANTE PICCOLA ROMA

Food: ***

Service: *** 1/2

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 200 Main St., Annapolis

Hours: Open Monday through Friday for lunch; dinner nightly

Prices: Appetizers, $5-$7.50; main courses, $13-$19.50

Call: 410-268-7898

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

Pub Date: 06/27/99

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