Tiburzi's a family project

With good food, this Canton cafe wants to be a restaurant

Sunday Gourmet

February 02, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | By Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Sometimes it seems as if all the family-owned restaurants are disappearing, mowed down by the chains. Then along comes a place like Tiburzi's.

Now this is a family restaurant.

It's owned by Henry Tiburzi, 38, his brother Sabatino (Sam), 47, and his sister Debbie, 46. They have three other siblings. Their father is one of 21 children and their mother, one of 11.

"More than half our staff is family," says Henry Tiburzi. "The rest of the family -- they patronize the place."

What every new restaurant needs: a built-in customer base.

The Tiburzis owned a deli in Dundalk before they bought the Kenwood Avenue building in 1998, just before prices for Canton real estate skyrocketed. The brothers spent the next four years renovating it themselves.

The result is a mixed bag: An Old Baltimore corner rowhouse painted white and decorated with elegant marble tiles on the outside. The marble motif is picked up again in the bathrooms, which are quite luxurious. But both the downstairs and upstairs dining rooms are really bars with tables. They have potential, but I could do without the game machines and TV in at least one of them.

So, Tiburzi's feels more like a neighborhood bar with decent food than cafe at the moment. I can live with that. Apparently, the place is expanding into the building next door, and it will then be more of a restaurant.

Just about the only place you won't see a member of the family at Tiburzi's is in the executive chef position. Those honors go to Fouad Bouberri, whose specialty, according to Henry, is "Italian Mediterranean" food. Still, Mom makes the lasagna, Sis makes the meatballs and Henry confesses he "goes back and dabbles" a bit in the kitchen, sometimes cooking soup.

I don't know if he had a hand in the Italian sausage soup, a hearty and flavorful creation that arrived lukewarm. We had no complaints about the fried calamari, which was tender and golden-crusted.

The best of our starters, though, were the stuffed mushroom caps and -- unexpectedly -- seared ahi tuna. The rare slices crusted with peppercorns were beautifully fresh and had an intriguing bit of hoisin-mustard sauce to bring out their flavor. The mushroom caps overflowed with lump crab meat, perfectly seasoned, and their imperial topping enhanced rather than overwhelmed.

Salads are skimpy, but maybe customers were leaving their greens on the plate so the kitchen stopped serving so much. There was nothing skimpy about the brick-size rectangle of lasagna, oozing with cheese, or the enormous -- and satisfying -- meatballs. There's a long list of pasta dishes here, most of them falling in the good cheap eats category.

But somewhere in Tiburzi's is a serious restaurant trying to get out. We saw it with the stuffed mushroom caps and the seared tuna. And we saw it again with a special of tender filet mignon topped with lump crab meat in more of that fine imperial sauce. The special came with rice and what I think of as Greek-style green beans, cooked to a fare-thee-well with tomatoes.

The other special was shrimp parmigiana, a variation on the eggplant (or veal) dish. Jumbo butterflied shrimp actually make a very good base for the fried crust, melted cheese and tomato sauce. To my mind, it's a lot to do to the shrimp, but if you like parmigiana dishes, you should try this one.

Desserts included a pretty little tiramisu, cannoli, a molten-centered chocolate concoction and a couple of cheesecakes, all of which are freshly made and satisfying.

It will be interesting to see what the next step for Tiburzi's is after it expands. Right now, it's a nice neighborhood place where you can go for an inexpensive dinner after work or a few drinks. Eat there a few times, and I imagine the owners will start treating you like family. Come to think of it, they treat you like family anyway, even if it's your first time eating there.

Tiburzi's

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 900 S. Kenwood Ave., Canton

Hours: Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $4.95-$9.95; main courses, $7.95-$20.95

Call: 410-327-8100

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

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