Almost something to sing about

Restaurant: Soprano's ably takes over Winterling's old spot. Pasta and sauces strike a high note

steak and pizza could use tuning up.

Sunday Gourmet

September 24, 2000|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

When Winterling's, that old-fashioned, quintessentially Baltimore restaurant, closed, it was situated in Highlandtown. Now Soprano's Cafe (named after the popular TV show) has opened in the same space -- only the area is now Canton, says co-owner Jeff Patti.

Smart move. Canton is certainly the trendiest of all Baltimore neighborhoods at the moment. But I don't buy it. This is Highlandtown, and Soprano's Cafe is a nice neighborhood bar and restaurant where you can get dinner for under $15 and where the wine list is the size of a postage stamp.

I happen to like Highlandtown bars as much as I like chic little Canton restaurants. So do a lot of other people; as a result, Soprano's has been busy in the first few weeks of its existence.

Money has been spent to spruce the place up. The acoustical ceiling may not have a lot of style, but it keeps the noise level down. The two dining rooms sport beautiful hardwood floors, exposed brick, sprightly murals, vintage photographs and pleasing details like whimsical lampshades with paste jewels and fringe. Still, when you plaster the outside with signs announcing the bar's specials, it detracts from the looks of the place.

If this were my neighborhood, I might very well eat at Soprano's whenever I didn't feel like cooking. I would order a small house salad with the excellent, cheesy dressing and one of the homemade pastas brought over from its parent restaurant, Luigi Petti in Little Italy.

Soprano's gnocchi, little dumplings that practically floated off the plate, are made with ricotta cheese. Order them with the fresh-tasting, flavorful marinara sauce. Other possibilities among the homemade pastas are baked penne, lasagna, cheese ravioli and manicotti; but even if you don't get one of the homemades, pasta is the way to go here. Just as good as the gnocchi was the linguine with little curls of shrimp in a rosy cream and tomato sauce. It came in a flat white bowl spangled with chopped parsley, mighty elegant for a mere $12.95.

Sauces are a strong suit here. A delicate cream and sherry sauce was the best part of a mussels appetizer; the mussels themselves didn't taste bad but didn't taste good either.

As for other first courses: shrimp bisque isn't strictly Italian, but Soprano's has a seductively good one, chockful of shrimp and cream. I would also happily start with the appealing anise-tinged sausage and sauteed peppers in a buttery sauce. A generous antipasto of Italian meats and cheese on salad greens should be considered a meal in itself, not a first course.

So far, so good. But two dishes keep me from labeling Soprano's a find. A special of the evening sounded great: a stuffed lobster tail and steak for $17.95. But the lobster and the tasteless steak were both overcooked, and the seasoning of the crab stuffing didn't appeal. Even worse, given that pizza is a staple here, was the sponge-crusted pizza, although it did have a fine topping of fresh tomatoes, fresh basil and fresh mozzarella.

The dessert situation was also disheartening. You don't expect a bar to make its own desserts, but someone in the kitchen could have trotted over to Vaccaro's in Little Italy and brought back a nice slice of rum cake or tiramisu in the time it took the kitchen to get the tired apple pie and carrot cake out to our table. One positive note: They do make a mean hot fudge sundae here. It wouldn't have occurred to us to order it except that one of the regulars at the table next to us had one.

What Soprano's does well, it does very well, at very reasonable prices. And it has that friendly feel of a good neighborhood restaurant. We loved our waitress, who did her best even though she was overworked. If the other waitress, who didn't seem to have as much to do, had pitched in a bit more and not been so grumpy when we asked her for water or an extra fork, the food would have gotten on the table sooner and I would have given Soprano's service more stars.

SOPRANO'S CAFE

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 3200 Foster Ave.

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

Prices: Appetizers, $2.50-$7.95; main courses, $7.95-$12.95 (specials are higher)

Call: 410-563-7900

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

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