Shopping-center surprise

Restaurant: Its service isn't great and its location is ordinary, but Mezzanotte offers food with a lot of style.

Sunday Gourmet

February 06, 2000|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

The name, which means "midnight" in Italian, makes Mezzanotte sound a little racier than it actually is. The reality is a pleasant family restaurant in a shopping center. The surprise -- given the looks of the place -- is that the southern Italian food has quite a bit of style.

I should get the bad news over with first, and I don't mean the looks of the place. The two dining rooms have booths and tables close enough together that you couldn't call it spacious dining. But Mezzanotte is snug and comfortable, and very accommodating to kids.

My problem was with the service. (Hey, that's a surprise.) Nothing major, just odds and ends. Mezzanotte doesn't take reservations, I was told when I called. The night we were there it was crowded, but we were seated right away. Unfortunately, our table was next to the kitchen door. When I asked to be moved to an empty table farther away, the hostess told us it was reserved for someone else.

Our waitress was as nice as she could be, but she chewed gum, which isn't tremendously appetizing. And she didn't quite understand that you don't just substitute another bottle of wine if you don't have the one your customer ordered -- at least not without mentioning it. When two of our entrees were ready, she brought those out. Shall we eat them while they're hot, or be polite and wait? No problem -- she forgot to bring us forks.

I have to say that I didn't have a lot of hope for the food, given the gum problem and the wine problem and the tasteless little rolls.

So you can imagine my pleasure at our first courses. An antipasto of prosciutto, salami, fresh mozzarella and grilled vegetables, all glistening with olive oil, is full of suave flavors. Fat New Zealand mussels on the half shell sport a creamy, blush-pink sauce and a scattering of snowy crab meat. Nuggets of spicy Italian sausage stud fresh spinach that's been sauteed with garlic and basil. Equally good but more subtly flavored is Mezzanotte's bruschetta, toasted Italian bread topped with crab meat and a bit of roasted red pepper. (Why didn't we get Italian bread instead of the rolls to begin with?)

The kitchen knows how to present its food, on large, white plates with a confetti of parsley and red pepper for decoration.

Sauces are flavorful and not overdone. And while the menu is, for the most part, pretty traditional, there are some surprises -- like lamb steak grilled pink and juicy. It's sauced with white wine and capers and served with shiitake mushrooms over capellini.

You do see a repetition of themes here, so, for instance, fusilli primavera might come with the same creamy rose sauce that appeared on the mussels appetizer. But you can also get it with a marinara sauce that caresses the pasta, fresh spinach, broccoli, mushrooms and artichoke hearts.

Artichoke hearts make an appearance again with thick fillets of fresh salmon in a white-wine sauce with capers, garlic and lemon over -- yes -- capellini.

Capellini is the base again for the restaurant's signature veal dish, veal mezzanotte. Ironically, it's the kitchen's only failure. The tender scaloppine taste as if they're coated with uncooked flour. Even delicate spears of asparagus and strips of roasted red pepper can't rescue it.

Mezzanotte has had a busy weekend (this is a Sunday night), so, our waitress tells us, not much is left in the way of desserts. None is made in house. We sample profiteroles filled with chocolate mousse, a chocolate cake and cheesecake, none of which is up to the rest of our meal.

MEZZANOTTE BISTRO

Food: ***

Service: **

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 4844 Butler Road, Glyndon

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $3.95-$8.95; entrees, $9.95-$19.95

Call: 410-526-5711

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

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