Luigi Petti's traditional fare satisfies diners

Count on quantity, even when the appetizer comes with crab meat

Restaurant Review

Sunday Gourmet

April 21, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | By Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Luigi Petti is something of a new kid on the block as far as Little Italy restaurants go. It's been open a dozen years, which is an eternity compared with most restaurants. But Little Italy seems to be the exception; Baltimore institutions like Sabatino's, Velleggia's and Chiapparelli's, along with many other old-timers, still hold sway there.

When Luigi Petti first opened, it must have seemed quite daring, with the main dining room's black and pink supper-club look. Even now it's the only restaurant in the neighborhood that has a multilevel, plant-filled deck for al fresco dining. But such deviations from the norm are deceptive. Open Luigi Petti's menu and you'll find the traditional southern Italian dishes for which Little Italy is famous.

On a weeknight you'll probably be seated in the restaurant's loggia / bar overlooking the deck, more casual than the dining room in spite of the marble columns. This could be a cozy area, but the night we were there what I noticed most was that the carpeting was in need of a good vacuuming.

I had with me diners both adventuresome and stick-in-the-mud; the stick-in-the-muds tended to come out ahead in the food department. They played it safe with dishes like veal parmigiana, which involved a large cutlet, lots of tomato sauce and mozzarella, and a ton of spaghetti.

But when a friend and I split the hot antipasto -- about as adventuresome as Luigi Petti's menu gets -- we got quantity but not much flavor. The kitchen was out of sausage, which would have given the combination some zip. The shrimp, pale rings of calamari and scallops were oddly tasteless. I ended up eating the sauteed peppers and fried ravioli. There were also mozzarella sticks and garlic bread; the latter would have been excellent if it had started with better bread.

Luigi Petti's ravioli are made in house, stuffed with ricotta cheese and fried so they have crisp edges. They can be had on their own with marinara sauce, which is what I would do next time.

You can always count on quantity here, even when it involves semi-precious ingredients like crab. I was staggered by the amount of highly seasoned crab meat that was piled on garlic toast -- too much, really. It could hardly be called an appetizer, even though it was billed as such.

Probably the best of our dishes was something called crab Ontario, which involved even more crab, this time tossed in a seductive tomato cream sauce over linguine. Simple and to the point, and very satisfying.

But pastas aren't always a sure bet here. Penne con broccoli suffered from the substitution of broccoli for the promised broccoli raab, a slightly bitter green that would have given the dish a badly needed kick.

Most of Luigi Petti's seafood is shellfish, but the kitchen does produce a satisfactory if not memorable grilled swordfish steak with shrimp scattered on top. It swam in lemon butter, with a stalk of bright green broccoli on the side for color.

Salads come with entrees, but like the bread, they were indifferent: lots of dressing and wedges of pale spring tomatoes.

Desserts were limited to tiramisu, Bailey's Irish whiskey cheese cake and chocolate cannoli, all decorated enthusiastically by the kitchen with swirls of whipped cream and squiggles of chocolate sauce.

As we left, a manager or owner thanked us for coming. It was heartfelt, but not at all intrusive, and it reminded me why I like Little Italy restaurants. Even when the food isn't much more than respectable, the staff makes you feel welcome and right at home.

Luigi Petti

Food: **

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 1002 Eastern Ave.

Hours: Lunch and dinner daily, Sunday brunch

Prices: Appetizers, $4.95-$9.95; main courses, $13.95-$23.95

Call: 410-685-0055

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *H

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