Regional American meets classic Italian

Restaurant: The daily specials are the best bet at La Tesso Tana, where the menu has expanded to include dishes like gumbo as well as shrimp fra diavola.

Sunday Gourmet

March 18, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Ed Rogers, chef and owner of La Tesso Tana, made his reputation in Baltimore as an accomplished Italian chef. He had run the kitchens of Gianni's Harborplace and Raphael's in Little Italy -- both now closed -- before he decided to strike out on his own. When he opened his own restaurant, he stayed with the classic Italian dishes he was known for.

But in the six years since La Tesso Tana opened, an interesting thing has happened. The traditional Italian cuisine has taken on a down-home, regional American accent. Along with minestrone, you'll find Louisiana gumbo on the menu. Shrimp fra diavola co-exists with Cajun catfish.

Restaurants in this part of town are very much at the mercy of what's happening at the Meyerhoff or the opera house. When there isn't an event, Rogers might lure customers with a soul-food prix fixe that includes -- among much else -- lima bean soup, chicken and dumplings, fried fish, trotters (pigs' feet), corn bread, greens and even pre-sweetened iced tea. If that doesn't strike your fancy, you can always get veal marsala or spaghetti alla puttanesca in the pretty subterranean dining room.

The restaurant is small, with a bar on one side and a comfortable dining room on the other. Chairs and banquettes covered in a flowery tapestry pattern are paired with marble-topped tables. A row of mirrors opens up the room a little.

It's a low-key, pleasant place, without the high-energy excitement (read noise) of some of the newer spots. The service is a little erratic; but everything is cooked to order so a wait is understandable, and the staff is eager to please.

Your best bet is to stick with the daily specials. These are the most interesting dishes, like the alligator alla dill appetizer. The tender, milky-white slices, treated like veal scallops, are dipped in egg and sauteed; the golden exteriors are bathed in a lemony butter sauce.

La Tesso Tana's Louisiana gumbo is smooth and rich with just an edge of heat. A spectacular amount of snowy crab meat is mounded on top of the spoonful of rice at its center.

This time of year shad and shad roe are featured -- seasonal delicacies that are increasingly hard to find on restaurants' menus. You can get them separately or together. The rich but delicate fillet is at its best broiled and paired with the meaty roe in a lemon-butter sauce sprinkled with almonds.

The restaurant's surf and turf showcases a fat, pink-centered loin lamb chop in a herb-sparked breadcrumb crust and a pretty crab cake with generous amounts of lump crab meat. Broccoli florets, a broiled tomato and a sprig of rosemary completed the pretty plate.

When we ventured away from the specials we found dishes competently done but not exciting.

Linguini alla Tesso Tana with crab meat and shrimp was tossed with a brandy cream sauce that was a bit bland. Chicken piccata, boneless breasts sauteed with capers, white wine, lemon and butter, was pleasant enough, but didn't win any raves from the friend who ordered it. The same could be said of her baked brie edged with a warm raspberry sauce.

Artichoke hearts topped with crab meat, lemon, white wine and capers were satisfying, but without the wow factor of the alligator appetizer.

Vegetables are treated with respect here. Fresh green beans, cooked just long enough, accompanied each entree. One of us substituted potatoes for the rice, and I wished I had. These hand-cut, unpeeled spears are baked to gold crunchiness, not fried.

Desserts were disappointing, particularly because they were a highlight of our first meal here six years ago.

The pastries, no longer made in house, weren't as fresh as they should have been. You might do better to have one of La Tesso Tana's after-dinner drinks with coffee, liqueurs, ice cream and whipped cream -- the selection is impressive, and you know they're made to order.

La Tesso Tana's traditional Italian cuisine has taken on a down-home, regional American accent.

LA TESSO TANA

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 58 W. Biddle St.

Hours: Tuesday through Sunday for dinner only

Prices: Appetizers, $4-$13; main courses, $12.50-$27.50

Call: 410-837-3630

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

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