Pasta is the show stopper at Aida

October 31, 2002|By Robin Tunnicliff | Robin Tunnicliff,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Aida Bistro is one of those versatile restaurants that can be as dressy or as casual as you want it to be. The very good Italian fare works well for special occasions -- and for ordinary days when you just want some good, filling pasta.

Almost hidden from view in the depths of the ubiquitous Columbia strip mall, Aida provides an airy, sleek setting where suits are appropriate, from Armani to sweat (although we agree with Jerry Seinfeld that wearing the latter in public is basically saying that one has given up).

On one side is a large deli, not quite finished when we visited; on the other is the dining room, with warm yellow walls, low lights and a long bar.

The pasta dishes were the show stoppers of our meal at Aida. The night's special appetizer of basil-and-mushroom-filled ravioli drenched in a pinkish-red creamy marinara sauce deserves permanent status on the menu. While the basil taste was not terribly pronounced, it provided a solid, garden-fresh undertone for the sweet sauce and woody sliced mushrooms.

Boscailoa (Italian for "woodsman") was the most interesting mix of tastes and texture: finger-length tubes of penne, thin slices of melt-in-the-mouth mushrooms and crumbled pancetta stirred into a dusky veal-and-Marsala wine sauce.

Our other pasta dish, basil linguine ala Castalane, also fared well in terms of unusual combinations, blending well-cooked shrimp, bite-sized pieces of tenderloin, tomato chunks, artichoke hearts and homemade basil fettuccine tossed with a light brandy demi-glace.

Aida prepares non-pasta dishes nicely as well. A generous piece of grilled salmon marinated with dill featured an excellent buttery Dijon sauce, kept light and slightly tingly by a drizzle of wine. Sides were a small swirl of pasta and crisp green beans.

A gorgonzola and apple salad was a pleasant mix of tart apples, candied walnuts and pungent cheese. A chewy, fruity bruschetta was another interesting melange of taste -- diced red onions and Roma tomatoes, shrimp, lemon slices, cilantro and artichoke hearts (not dripping in oil from the can, thank goodness).

Desserts fell short of our expectations. The tiramisu was moist enough but wasn't remarkable. The creme brulee looked the part and crackled when we broke through the burnt sugar surface, as it should. But beneath the sugar, again there wasn't anything remarkable.

The saving sweet turned out to be the one our very attentive server recommended: apple crisp served warm from the oven. Redolent of cinnamon and crunchy with baked oats, it would have been superb with or without the scoop of vanilla ice cream plopped on top.

In the liquor department, Aida keeps more than 30 wines on hand and describes each one in unpretentious language that's right on the money.

Aida's genial owner, Joe Barbera, was making the rounds on the quiet early-weeknight that we visited. As we left -- long after the few other customers had -- he and his staff were sitting at the bar, clearly enjoying themselves with a meal and glass of wine. Their enthusiasm seemed to bear out our impression of Aida -- that it's a little gem.

Aida Bistro

Where: 7185 Columbia Gateway Drive, Columbia

Open: For lunch Monday through Friday and dinner Tuesday through Saturday

Prices: Appetizers $4.50 to $9.95; entrees $10.95 to $19.95

Credit cards: Major credit cards

Call: 410-953-0500

Food: * * *

Service: * * *

Atmosphere: * * *

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