You know what you're going to get here

Restaurant: At Chiapparelli's, the service is flawless in a comfy way, the food less so -- but that's probably what you expect.

Sunday Gourmet

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

It's interesting to see how restaurants handle annoying customers. In this case, me. Four of us are at Chiapparelli's -- a Little Italy landmark -- and we've been led to a table next to the waitress station and the kitchen door. To get me to sit down at this table they're going to have to use a grappling hook.

The hostess has disappeared, so I ask the waitress if we can sit at one of the empty tables farther away.

She explains that each of them is set for six people, and what are they going to do if a larger party comes in? I say that it's 7:30 on a weeknight and how likely is it that three parties of six are going to be coming? She says she'll have to get the manager. I can feel us both getting more mulish by the minute.

Then suddenly, miraculously, she shrugs imperceptibly, smiles and says graciously, "Go ahead. You can have whichever table you like." An even bigger smile appears. "But you'll have to eat for six."

With one remark she's defused a potentially awkward situation. Not only that, she's made us feel as though she actually cares about whether we have a good time.

And that, I believe, is one of the main reasons why Baltimoreans go to Little Italy. Not for the veal parmigiana or the manicotti. You can get those just about anywhere. But there are few restaurants left that have career waitresses -- in this case, someone who's been waiting tables 28 years and still seems to enjoy her work.

True, our entrees are a long time coming. But I blame that on the kitchen. And at the end of the meal we have to ask for a check because our waitress is busy talking to friends at another table. (She's quite apologetic.) Otherwise the service is flawless in a down-home, comfy, motherly sort of way.

The same can't be said of the food, alas. Clams casino, served on a bed of table salt, have an uninspired sludge of breadcrumbs and almost raw curls of bacon. The famous Chiapparelli's salad is heavy on the iceberg lettuce and has too much dressing. An antipasto plate includes roasted peppers that taste like canned pimientos to me. Swordfish M.K. is overcooked and covered with Cajun spices so salty the fish is inedible.

Of course, you could say my husband shouldn't have ordered Cajun swordfish in an Italian restaurant. And, indeed, the Italian dishes are better. Momma Chiapparelli's Ravioli, overstuffed squares that melt on the tongue, sit prettily on a pool of flavorful tomato sauce. Fat shrimp paired with salmon are grilled and bathed in lemon butter with capers, then flanked with fresh broccoli. This -- along with the ravioli, veal Leo, a soup and a chicken dish -- is one of the five house specialties. If you stick to them you won't go wrong. The Italian wedding soup, for instance, has a chicken broth so fresh and fine it doesn't even need the greens, tiny meatballs and pasta, but is practically ambrosial with them. (The soup could lose the chunks of carrot without ill effect.)

Other dishes aren't quite so satisfying. An appetizer of string beans Rugguri style, with fresh green beans, artichoke hearts and olives dressed with vinaigrette, would be better without all the onion.

A special this evening of shrimp, gnocchi and veal would almost work if my friend hadn't substituted veal Leo for veal Bryan, which means that all three are swimming monotonously in a chunky tomato sauce. (The veal Bryan has a wine sauce.) You can't blame the kitchen for her substitution, but even having two in tomato sauce isn't good.

Chiapparelli's has only four desserts, but they're the classic ones: tiramisu, cannoli, spumoni and tartufo. We order one of each, and our waitress -- without being asked -- cuts them in quarters and arranges them on a platter for us so we can help ourselves to a little of this and a little of that. Nice.

Beyond its desserts, you could say that Chiapparelli's itself is a classic. That can be good: Italian comfort food and motherly waitresses. That can be bad: wines by the glass identified only as "Chianti" and "pinot grigio," and bread that may be homemade (as the menu says) but doesn't compare to the artisan breads now available from any number of local bakeries. Still, you know what you're going to get here, probably because it's pretty much the same as it was when Little Italy was just about the only place to go for good food in Baltimore.


Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 237 S. High St.

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily

Prices: Appetizers, $6-$12; main courses, $13-$28

Call: 410-837-0309

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

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