There's a new lady in town: Josephine

Restaurant: A new moderately priced neigh-borhood restaurant between Canton and Highlandtown features decent food and fancier specials.

Sunday Gourmet

September 02, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

I always liked Stella's in Hampden, a nice little Italian eating place that eventually closed. So I was happy to hear that Ellen Davis, who had worked in Stella's kitchen, had opened her own restaurant (with a couple of partners) on Fleet Street. The new restaurant, Josephine's, sounded like a Stella's kind of place.

Josephine's is more of a bar than Stella's ever was, but if you keep going you'll find a dining room in back -- nothing fancy but nice, freshly painted, with hardwood floors, Italian art deco posters on the walls, and fresh flowers on the tables.

The restaurant is located on the edges of both Highlandtown and Canton, and that's where it is metaphorically as well. By that I mean it has an appealing combination of down-home Baltimore virtues and Canton trendiness. The basic menu is traditional pasta dishes, with an average price of around $10. They come with a house or Caesar salad. Then there are fancier specials that cost up to $20, such as soft-shelled crabs with basil hollandaise.

Josephine's menu is not for everyone. One diner at my table pointed out that there's nothing much for those watching their calories. And you wouldn't come to Josephine's for seafood, although shrimp and crab make their appearance here and there on the menu. Don't even ask about the wine list; after more than a month there still isn't one -- although you can get wine by the glass, so I presume you could buy it by the bottle.

But within its limitations, Josephine's could be what you're looking for: a moderately priced neighborhood restaurant with decent food. The surroundings are pleasant, and it's run by pleasant people. And they understand that certain things are essential in even a modest Italian restaurant, like good bread.

Just about everything is served on or with pasta, even if you don't expect it to be, so first courses could also be a light meal. Tender little rings of marinated and grilled calamari are unexpectedly perched on cappellini. Shrimp, too, arrives on pasta, interlaced with chunks of fresh tomatoes and capers.

Even if no pasta is involved, first courses are substantial. In the eggplant Roma, slices of eggplant are fried (too much fried and not enough vegetable) and stacked on a fresh-tasting tomato sauce. The dish is finished off with large lumps of crab meat and a suave basil hollandaise, Josephine's signature sauce.

In fact, several key ingredients are repeated over and over again in various combinations -- pasta, lump crab meat and basil hollandaise being the most obvious ones. And, you have to admit, it's hard to complain about any one of those.

Crab meat turned up in the soup of the day, gazpacho. I gave Josephine's fresh and flavorful version a thumbs up because you could taste the vegetables, but the guest who ordered it didn't think it was spicy enough.

A fine, fat filet mignon -- tender and cooked exactly as ordered -- came topped with big lumps of crab meat and more of the basil hollandaise. Fried soft crabs, too, had a dollop of the sauce. (I would have liked the dish better if the soft shells had been pan-fried, not deep-fried.)

Both of these dinners were specials and arrived surrounded by pasta and fresh, tender green beans. A third special was more modest, but pleasing in its own way. The boneless breast of chicken was crusty with Romano cheese, browned lightly and anointed with a gentle lemon sauce.

We tried only one of the pastas on the regular menu, an appealing lasagna made with al dente noodles and oozing with melted cheese. The pleasingly rustic combination of ground beef, veal and sausage gave the dish more complexity than usual.

You have a choice of Caesar or house salad with dinners, and I strongly recommend the Caesar. The house salad was the biggest disappointment of the evening -- not the salad itself, which was respectable, but the dressing, which tasted bottled and fat-free. (If it wasn't but just tasted that way, well -- that's almost worse.)

Josephine's dessert selection is a good illustration of how the restaurant knows its limits and stays within them to good effect. The tiramisu, miniature cannoli and biscotti come from Vaccaro's, the pastry shop in Little Italy. I liked the fact that a cookie plate is an option with your after-dinner coffee.

The service that evening was fine, in that we got what we ordered in a timely fashion, but our waitress was a little spacey, saying the green beans came with pine nuts and the filet was topped with a crab cake. Maybe the green beans had come with pine nuts at the beginning of the evening and the kitchen didn't tell her when it dropped them. And maybe the filet had been topped with a crab cake and not crab meat earlier that evening. But somehow I doubt it.

JOSEPHINE'S

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 2112 Fleet St.

Hours: Dinner only Monday through Saturday

Prices: Appetizers, $2.95-$10.50; main courses, $7.50-$15.50 (specials cost more)

Call: 410-327-6261

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

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