New cafe keeps much the same as predecessor

Caffe Brio's owner has tweaked menu but the ambience remains unchanged


July 18, 2002|By Robin Tunnicliff Reid | Robin Tunnicliff Reid,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Buying a very popular neighborhood restaurant can be a tricky proposition. You want to make your mark without losing the regulars or the staff that the regulars have grown to love.

Rob Spinazzola finds himself facing exactly that situation as the new owner of the One World Cafe in Federal Hill. He's proceeding with caution, following the old adage of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

The former Worldcom employee (he left long before the accounting scandal erupted) has, however, made four noticeable changes to the Federal Hill eatery. He changed the name to Caffe Brio (Italian for "fun and fine spirits"). He got rid of the pool table. He put meat and poultry on the formerly vegetarian menu. And he added table service to end the long lines that used to form at the counter.

Other than that, things haven't really changed much. The dining room, with its exposed brick and timber, still has an intimate, convivial feel. The staff still is unfailingly friendly. Customers still linger over flavored coffees and dessert, because the cafe still is a great place to hang out.

With the meaty exceptions, Caffe Brio's menu includes a lot of One World dishes. They're still serving homemade hummus that tastes strongly of lemon in one bite and of garlic in the next. It's accompanied by carrot sticks, broccoli and soft pita. A pesto quesadilla, which used to appear as a special, is now (thank goodness) a staple. It features six crepelike tortillas brushed with a tasty, very nutty pesto, then filled with diced tomatoes, onions and a judicious dose of melted cheese.

Brio wisely still serves a wonderful, hefty spinach salad made with walnuts, caramelized onions, roasted red peppers and bite-sized chunks of green apples. The portobello mushroom sandwich is also still around, but in need of reorganization. Ours arrived between two slices of untoasted, soggy bread - not open-faced as described on the menu. A sturdier base might have held up better to the otherwise well-prepared mix of mushrooms, caramelized onions, feta, tomatoes and sprouts.

In the meat department, Caffe Brio is off to a good start but has some work to do. We twice had to send back a too-pink cheeseburger, to the obvious embarrassment of our server. (We had ordered the meat well-done.) In the case of a steak salad, however, all went well. The meat was cooked medium-rare, as requested, and we felt we got more than our money's worth of grilled flank steak, blue cheese and fresh spring greens.

Desserts - not made in house - were pretty good overall. Chocolate cake with chocolate-chip chocolate icing was much improved after it reached room temperature, and the same applies to a small slice of spicy carrot cake. The cheesecake with berries and kiwis wasn't dense enough, nor did the fruit have much bite.

Brio has a full bar, along with a nice assortment of domestic and imported beers. And the house-label coffee is very good, either hot or over ice.

Caffe Brio

Where: 902 S. Charles St.

Open: Daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers $3.50 to $11.95; entrees $4.95 to $9.95

Credit cards: AE, MC, V

Call: 410-234-0235

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

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