Light fare, gelati desserts shine at Annapolis


I met a gelato devotee at the counter of Aromi d'Italia in Annapolis. He was lingering near the glass case where 26 creamy Italian ice creams were mounded artistically in sparkling steel containers. "I'm addicted," he sheepishly admitted.

Every night, even in the dead of winter, he makes the pilgrimage from his home near State Circle down to the City Dock for a scoop of Aromi d'Italia's perfect gelato. In the delusional way of most addicts, he told me he had actually lost weight with his nightly routine. Gelato is so much lighter than ice cream, he reasoned.

I told him my friends and I had just polished off a plate of gelato spaghetti. We chose scoops of hazelnut and chocolate gelati forced through a press into pastalike strands, garnished with whipped cream, drizzled with dark caramel sauce and dusted with hazelnuts. Yes, I agreed. I felt downright svelte.

The next morning, passing the The Mall in Columbia, I too felt the pull of Aromi d'Italia. It seemed perfectly rational at the time to stop at the restaurant's new gelati counter opposite Nordstrom for a light breakfast. Cappuccino and a cup of banana gelato, creamy and intense with fruit flavor. It was strictly for research purposes, I told myself.

Even as I write this I am dreaming of the flavors that caught my eye -- the espresso gelato dotted with coffee beans, the cantaloupe flecked with coral bits of fruit, the pistachio, a muddy green from its many ground nuts. But I digress.

You should know that Annapolis' Aromi d'Italia, which opened in April 1998, also serves a light menu of sandwiches, soup, pizza and prosciutto platters. Everything, down to the foot-and-a-half breadsticks, delicate Italian pastries and soft, golden focaccia, is made on the premises.

Pass the gelati display (closing your eyes may help) and step up to the cash register to order your meal from a paper menu. The staff will deliver the food to your table in the attractive dining room, accented with light-splashed brick walls and framed Italian prints.

You might start a meal with a bowl of flavorful, vegetable-packed minestrone, garnished with Parmesan cheese and focaccia croutons. For a larger group to share, you might sample a platter of shaved prosciutto, so thinly sliced it's like spreading butter on bread. We tried a platter with slices of mild, fresh mozzarella, ripe tomatoes, fine cooked prosciutto and fantastic raw, cured prosciutto.

Aromi d'Italia makes its pizza on a light, golden crust and tops its Caesar salad with a milky dressing that has good balance and flavor. Both are fine choices, but my favorite pick was the panini Toscano. A thick slice of roasted eggplant, artichoke hearts and roasted red peppers were sandwiched with creamy pesto between halves of soft focaccia bread.

American potato chips were nestled on one side of the sandwich, Italian-style roasted potato chunks in olive oil on the other. The combination of tastes was wonderful, and the sandwich was just light enough to justify a triple scoop of gelati for dessert. Yes, I digress again.

Another panini, the Aromi Max, is full of first-rate sliced turkey, mild sliced provolone and pancetta, the cured bacon that gives the sandwich its decidedly Italian attitude.

To drink, there are lip-puckering frozen lemonades, Italian sodas made from flavored syrups and plain old American pop.

Soon, owners Karmen and Boris Ghazarian plan to add fresh gnocchi to the menu. The sample dish Boris was eating the night we visited looked incredible. But here's some final advice: Whatever you order at Aromi d'Italia, be sure to leave room for dessert.

Aromi d'Italia

8 Dock St., Annapolis


Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers, $4.25-$9.50; entrees, $5.95-$12.75. No liquor license

Food: *** 1/2

Service: **1/2

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

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

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