Offering quality along with value

Restaurant: Ristorante Donatello keeps most dishes under $15 but the kitchen doesn't cut any corners

Sunday Gourmet

January 09, 2000|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

At Ristorante Donatello, you get a lot of bang for your buck. This is the Italian restaurant that opened where Central Station used to be, with Salvadore Alfeo from Piccolo's in Columbia as chef.

Donatello isn't breaking any new culinary ground. In fact, it reminds me of one of those pleasant, homey Little Italy restaurants. But the setting -- at least the non-smoking dining room where we were -- is classier than you might expect at a place where you can get panini (Italian sandwiches) for dinner as well as veal scaloppine, and where every effort has been made to keep the food affordable.

You no longer have to walk through the bar downstairs to get to the restaurant; there's a new exterior entrance. At the top of the stairs you find yourself in a cozy dining room with a fireplace, wood paneling and exposed brick. The lighting is soft, and the period chandeliers are worth a visit in themselves. The well-spaced tables are set with white linen, which gives the room a certain formality.

In other words, it's not an inappropriate setting for a special occasion, but most of the food is priced under $15. And most of it is pretty good. Take the clams casino appetizer. You can call the dish a classic, or you can say "how boring," but the kitchen prepares it perfectly: plump clams glorified with melted butter and a bit of crisp bacon and Parmesan cheese.

You could also start with steamed mussels in a traditional marinara sauce, done with a light hand. One of my guests complained that the mussel he tried had "gone south," but mine were all fine.

The specials of the week are less traditional, like a first course of artichoke hearts baked with good crab meat and roasted red pepper. You could follow it with the fish of the day, which this evening was grilled swordfish on a bed of fresh spinach. More of the good crab meat was tossed with corn, tomatoes and scallions as a relish.

The regular menu, though, is mostly straightforward, good old-fashioned Italian. Veal scaloppine are tender and probably quite flavorful; it's hard to tell with the Marsala wine sauce, given its dark intensity and the quantity of sauteed mushrooms.

Mushrooms make their appearance again with the hefty New York strip steak, grilled pink with plenty of meaty juices. The dish is delicious, but it's not for the fat-conscious; those mushrooms aren't sauteed with nonstick spray.

If truth be told, none of this is diet food. Chicken breasts are paired with fontina cheese and garnished with artichoke hearts, then bathed in a rich white-wine sauce. Pastas are hard to resist, and the bread -- the classic white Italian bread all local Italian restaurants used to serve -- is fresh and easy to eat too much of.

Donatello only slips when it comes to dessert. Odd, because a restaurant could always just get its desserts at Vaccarro's, the pastry shop in Little Italy, and make almost everyone happy.

What do I mean by slips? The kitchen turns a heavy cannoli filling into a pudding and sticks pieces of cannoli shell in it. This is simply a bad idea. So what if the pastries in their original form are hard to eat? It's part of their charm.

An apple strudel would have been fine, but it tasted as if the kitchen had microwaved it. If it wasn't microwaved, it must have been steamed to get that texture.

A cappuccino torte and one made with orange and raspberry weren't bad, just not memorable in any way.

I wouldn't call Ristorante Donatello a find exactly, but it's a nice little restaurant that you'll be glad to know about when you're feeling like traditional Italian food. And if you feel like an inexpensive supper on your way home from work -- well, with dishes on the menu like pastas under $10 and grilled chicken salad with white grapes, you can have that, too.

Ristorante Donatello

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 1001 N. Charles St.

Hours: Open for dinner every night and for Sunday brunch

Prices: Appetizers: $2.95-$8.95, main courses: $7.95-$19.95.

Call: 410-539-8877

Rating system

Outstanding ****

Good: ***

Fair or uneven: **

Poor: *

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