More than pasta at Rigatoni's

Restaurant: A kind of local, upscale Olive Garden opens in Towson.

Sunday Gourmet

March 25, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

It's hard to take a restaurant seriously that sounds as if it's been named after a pasta, but Rigatoni's deserves a little respect. It offers good value for the money and live music Tuesday and Saturday nights. What more could you ask?

After all, it's not as if owners George and Spyros Mamalis, who are natives of Greece, could name it after themselves and expect people to realize that Rigatoni's is an Italian restaurant -- a sort of local, upscale Olive Garden.

Rigatoni's is an apartment-house dining room, as Hampton's of Towson, its predecessor, was; but it's doing more to draw in customers from outside (note the bold signage) and seems to be succeeding.

The decor is uninspired -- a Florida Mediterranean look, with furniture painted cream and faux bunches of grapes hanging from a ceiling trellis. But it's comfortable; the tables for four are roomy; and carpeting, tablecloths and draperies help keep the noise level down. Not that this is a rowdy crowd.

The service was a bit ragged. Our waiter didn't offer to let anyone taste the bottle of wine before he poured. Water glasses were rarely filled, and he could have warned us that the stuffed onion ring appetizer would cost a dollar more than the menu said. But he was good-natured and got the food on the table quickly, given how busy he was.

Besides, the stuffed onion rings were worth the extra dollar. The kitchen takes two crunchy fried onion rings, puts a large dollop of lump crab meat at the center of each, and slathers them with a sauce made of tomatoes and cream. Talk about guilty pleasures.

Our waiter recommended the jalapeno poppers Italiano, crisp and hot and oozing cream cheese. I'm not sure what made them Italiano except the marinara sauce for dipping.

Mussels were steamed a little longer than I would have steamed them, but the butter, garlic and fresh-tasting marinara they were floating in just about made up for the overcooking.

Other appetizers at Rigatoni's tend to be bar food, but you don't really need a first course here. Dinners come with a big bowl of supposedly unlimited salad (although you have to ask for more; no one offers) and breadsticks.

The restaurant specializes in pastas and grilled items. If you like quantity or can't make up your mind, you'll want to get one of the combination platters. There are six of them, but the Napoletana Combo is typical: a filet with a marsala and mushroom sauce, shrimp in garlic butter, and a boneless chicken breast Florentine with spinach and provolone.

The shrimp were fine, the filet was a nice piece of beef that I would have liked even better without the sweetish sauce, and the chicken had been cooked longer than it should have been. A meat lover's dream, but a bit short on vegetables. Veal Oscar showed more subtlety, with the veal scaloppine placed next to a fan of pencil-thin asparagus spears. Lots of lump crab and a bit of hollandaise made up for the less-than-exciting veal.

A poetically named Mediterranean Delight combined shrimp, crab meat and scallops with alfredo sauce over homemade pasta -- a succulent balance of seafood, but the over-rich sauce needed bolder seasonings. I'd order instead fettuccine Italiano, which had more character than any of our other entrees. Its tender pasta was tossed with Italian sausage that had a bit of bite to it, peppers, black olives and marinara sauce with real personality.

Desserts at Rigatoni's hold no surprises -- although I was taken aback that the tartuffo (an ice cream bombe) had collapsed weirdly on the pastry tray and no one seemed to mind. The one we ordered, though, came straight from the freezer, so it was fine, as were the pastries we tried, none made on the premises.

RIGATONI'S

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 204 E. Joppa Road

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

Prices: Appetizers, $2.25-$9.95; main courses, $7.95-$21.95

Call: 410-821-8888

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

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