A relaxing place to dine

Restaurant: Cafe Troia offers fine service and a well-thought-out menu, without the trendy bustle.

Sunday Gourmet

September 16, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Sometimes when you go out all you want is a quiet place to relax and have good conversation. If the food is fine, so much the better. This is particularly true if you, like me, have been hitting all the high-energy new restaurants that have been opening up downtown. After a while you yearn for a place like the ever-reliable Cafe Troia in Towson.

At Cafe Troia there is no music. The white-clothed tables are larger than usual, so you never feel cramped, even when the small dining rooms are filled. The tables are set with only the important things. By that I mean a candle, a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil for the bread, salt and a small pepper grinder -- as if freshly ground pepper were every customer's right, not a privilege bestowed on him or her at the waiter's whim.

At Cafe Troia the waiter can discuss the wine list knowledgeably.

He will explain that there is no fresh mozzarella this evening instead of hoping you won't notice it's missing on the piatto misto. He's friendly without wanting to be your friend. He apologizes if he appears at the table in the middle of a spirited conversation, and he keeps the wine glasses filled.

The busboy pours water regularly and makes the empty plates disappear. Fresh bread arrives on the table without anyone asking. The courses are carefully paced -- we don't wait too long, and we aren't rushed. In fact, the only flaw in the service is that when we're finished no one comes to our table to see if we want the check (or anything else); we have to ask for it. I can't decide if this is deliberate or not. Maybe they just don't want to intrude.

Cafe Troia has recently redone its menu and the wine list. Both are compact but well-thought-out. I like a kitchen that doesn't believe it can (or has to) do everything.

The regular menu has several pastas, four veal dishes, a shrimp dish and three risottos. The fish of the day this evening is trout with lemon butter and capers. The trout is beautifully fresh, but its sauce is unnecessarily thick. No one, however, could fault the frisee lettuce wilted with a tangy balsamic vinaigrette.

A second dinner special, risotto con fiore di zucchino, offers a delicate balance of creamy rice, flavorful bits of pumpkin, zucchini blossoms and a splash of Asti Spumanti. But in the end the combination becomes a little monotonous.

Cafe Troia's osso buco is a better bet, with fork-tender meat in a sumptuous sauce of tomato and red wine. Gnocchi, tender but with substance, and a scattering of carrots and yellow squash showcase the veal shank.

Just as fine is orecchiette pasta tossed with chunks of fresh tuna, pleasantly bitter arugula, slivers of sun-dried tomato, olives and capers.

The kitchen creates a special salad of Boston lettuce with yellow pear tomatoes from the local farmers' market, dressed with a warm gorgonzola vinaigrette so the cheese melts lovingly into the crevices of the lettuce.

It's all the more puzzling that pale and flavorless slices of plum tomatoes turn up on the mixed antipasto, which is saved by tissue-thin slices of grilled eggplant, whipped goat cheese, artichoke hearts, almost translucent prosciutto and marinated roasted red pepper. The fine grilled eggplant can also be a separate first course with the soft whipped goat cheese.

Soups are lovely here; this night the zuppa del giorno is a fresh-tasting chicken broth filled with fresh spinach and delicate little pasta.

Desserts, something of a low point when I last visited Cafe Troia, are fabulous this time around. Particularly worthy of mention is a napoleon fashioned of phyllo sheets, a lemon cream and whipped cream.

But now that I think about it, in its own way the homemade strawberry gelato is equally wonderful, as is the moist bread pudding studded with golden raisins and bathed in caramel sauce. Only the chocolate-dipped cannolo fails to reach dessert nirvana, but against any other competition it would hold its own.

CAFE TROIA

Food: ** 1/2

Service: *** 1/2

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 28 W. Allegheny Ave.

Hours: Open for lunch Monday through Friday, for dinner daily

Prices: Appetizers, $4-$11; main courses, $14-$28

Call: 410-337-0133

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

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