Back to Jerry's, for the food

November 15, 2001|By Robin Tunnicliff Reid | Robin Tunnicliff Reid,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When a friend heard that I was reviewing Jerry's Belvedere Tavern, she exclaimed, "You mean people eat there!?"

Let's get one thing clear: Her reaction has nothing to do with the York Road establishment's culinary reputation and everything to do with its place in modern sociological history. If you lived in North Baltimore in the late 1970s and early '80s and were between the ages of 18 and 22, most likely Jerry's was the place for you.

Whether it was a Friday night or one of those precious nights when you were home from college for the holidays, you probably could find a group of your friends either in the bar or at a table in the dining room, where a game of quarters was under way, the juke box was playing "New York, New York," and Miss Myra, the little old waitress, was clucking angrily at some reprobate who had tossed peanut shells on the floor.

Those kids have grown up, and so has Jerry's. One would never consider dropping peanuts on the carpeted floor. Frescoes of white wisteria decorate the peachy-pink dining-room walls that once were yellowed by cigarette smoke. A marble-topped Victorian chest stands where the jukebox used to be. And Miss Myra is gone, replaced by a pleasant young waitress who remembers what her customers ordered the last time.

The most important evolution, however, may be that former beer-swilling regulars are now coming to Jerry's primarily to eat rather than drink. The fat, juicy hamburgers and the bacon cheeseburgers that have been served since the old days never fail to satisfy. And you can still get a plate of onion rings or french fries (although the fries are thinner than they used to be, to the chagrin of one old-timer).

The tomato-base crab soup is another excellent standard, loaded with vegetables and sweet crab meat. And you'd be hard-pressed to find a 20-ounce Porterhouse for $14.95 elsewhere.

If you want to venture beyond the standards, however, you need some inside information. First, and perhaps the most important, you need to remember that chef Dave Rugolo (son of Jerry's owner, Pete) studied cooking in Sicily. He makes the pasta for his weekly specials by hand. So, going Italian is a safe bet. In the stuffed-shell special, the dense, creamy cheese filling in the plump pasta played well against the not-too-sweet tomato sauce.

Second, trust the traditional bar appetizers and things made from them. An appetizer of potato wedges topped with melted Cheddar and bacon did the job. No bacon bits, either; Jerry's stretches long, chewy strips over the full length of the wedges.

We loved the idea of tossing chunks of buffalo wings in a garden salad with ranch dressing. Every piece of the well-seasoned, tender meat packed some punch.

Third, stick to the fresh-seafood specials. Because Rugolo gets his catch fresh on Fridays, very little is left by the end of the weekend. Not knowing this, we went on a couple of Mondays and had to make do with the main menu's seafood combination platter. It was an unfortunate choice: Two overly breaded crab cakes, a few tasteless fried shrimp and oysters and two cod cakes that cried out for Mrs. Paul. The only bright spot in that sea was a hefty dollop of very good shrimp salad.

Fourth, the Kentucky Derby pie deserves roses. Each bite contains the perfect mix of grainy, bittersweet chocolate, pecans and whipped cream. Save room for this delicious creation.

My friend Jeannie, with whom I spent many nights of my misbegotten youth at Jerry's, was with me the evenings I reviewed. Funny, she remarked after one dinner, the bulk of the bill was for food instead of for beer. We both agreed that was a change for the better.

Jerry's Belvedere Tavern

5928 York Road

410-435-8600

Open: For lunch and dinner daily

Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V

Prices: Appetizers $1.50 to $15 (for a pound of shrimp); entrees $5.75 to $16.95

Food: * * 1/2

Service: * * 1/2

Atmosphere: * *

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