Liberatore's puts gusto on a plate

Timonium restaurant can be relied upon for big flavor, big portions, good pacing

Sunday Gourmet

August 18, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

When it opened almost a decade ago, Liberatore's was the hot ticket in Timonium. Surprisingly, this expensive Italian restaurant hasn't cooled down much since then. Even on a Tuesday night in August, almost every table was filled.

Partly it's the location, in a fairly affluent area filled with family places and chains but not many upscale restaurants. But mostly it's because Liberatore's delivers the goods. So many restaurants that opened in the '90s were hip little bistros or fusion restaurants in the minimalist mold. Liberatore's has followed a more old-fashioned model, like a Tio Pepe or a Prime Rib. Nothing flashy here, just comfortable surroundings and lots of reliably good food.

So, for instance, the fish of the day is a gorgeous hunk of swordfish, big as a large steak -- thick, white, perfectly grilled and caressed by a balsamic vinegar reduction. It's flanked by not one but two big tubes of grilled calamari bursting with a shrimp stuffing. In the tiny amount of room remaining on the large plate is a great mound of garlic mashed potatoes, plus grilled summer vegetables.

No, you don't go home hungry.

The kitchen produces some fine food, but don't look for a lot of subtlety in presentation. Dishes make an exuberant show. Oysters Rockefeller are deceptively simple, just spinach and cream and a jolt of anise-flavored liqueur. But their half shells are arranged on a brightly colored, flowery plate and surrounded with shredded red cabbage and green lettuce. It's an eye-popping creation.

Another jazzy plate holds tissue-thin slices of raw filet mignon paired with a large serving of eggplant caponata. Capers and kalamata olives decorate the carpaccio as well, and toasted Italian bread rounds out the feast. And they call this an appetizer.

Two other, more traditional first courses don't have quite the kick of these two, but are quite respectable: fresh mozzarella layered with sliced tomatoes and bright green leaves of basil, and a hefty starter of clams Posillipo, their shells overflowing with a garlicky, chunky tomato broth.

You can end up spending a lot of money at Liberatore's, but the homemade pastas are reasonable and appealing, like the pepper-flecked pasta stuffed with wild mushrooms in a creamy sauce, made visually appealing with green peas, fresh basil and bits of prosciutto.

Where you might get into financial trouble are the specials. Our waiter was working on the "don't ask, don't tell" theory of specials recitation. (Of course -- crass me -- I asked, and found they were priced about $10 more than most of the rest of the menu.)

A happy substitute for the wonderful-sounding veal chop special is veal Liberatore, with well-pounded veal, enormous lumps of crab meat and a cream sauce that whispers to the other ingredients.

Chicken and shrimp Rafael may be more modest, but it delivers plenty of satisfaction, with tender white meat, large shrimp, artichoke hearts, mushrooms and a wine-dark sauce (the wine being Marsala).

Some desserts are made on the premises, some aren't. Don't think that the Italian ones must be the best just because this is an Italian restaurant. The tiramisu is nice, but a slice of coconut cake almost floats off the plate, weighted down only by the wonderfully heavy swirls of white icing thick with grated coconut.

Even after all these years, Liberatore's still draws the crowds, so the tables -- not quite expansive enough -- are placed close together. The dining room has a vaguely Mediterranean feel to it, with its columns, sponge-painted walls and large, gold-framed paintings of cherubim. The room is comfortable, which is the most important thing, and even when it's almost full you can hear your companions talk.

The service is almost too attentive, in the sense that the staff will interrupt a conversation to ask if you're finished with a plate or want another glass of wine. But then, that's better than the alternative. What impressed me most about our waiter was how well he controlled the pace of the meal, so we were never left sitting wondering if the next course would ever arrive.

Liberatore's

Food: *** 1/2

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 9515 Deereco Road, Timonium

Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday; dinner daily

Prices: Appetizers, $5-$12; main courses, $11-$36

Call: 410-561-3300

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

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