It's Italian, despite appearances

Cozy Cangialosi's is good family fare, though your eyes may not recognize it

Sunday Gourmet

April 06, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

The new Cangialosi's has the looks of a chic contemporary bistro, but its heart and soul are family Italian. Is this dichotomy a good or a bad thing? I can't quite decide.

On the one hand, cozy family Italian restaurant decor has become a cliche. True, it's no longer as predictable as it used to be, with the red-checked tablecloths and candles in Chianti bottles. But there are a lot of Italian restaurants in Baltimore that look an awful lot like other Italian restaurants, and they all serve veal Marsala and linguine with clam sauce. What's wrong with a little individuality?

On the other hand, when you walk into Cangialosi's you would never guess what kind of food it serves from the looks of the place. There are shiny hardwood floors and contemporary inlaid tables without tablecloths. The walls are painted colors like lemon yellow and slate blue. Cheerful watercolors of a shore town line one exposed brick wall. It's all bright and fresh and not at all what you'd expect. But when you're having spaghetti with meat sauce and a glass of wine -- well, a mural of Tuscany is kind of pleasant.

Maybe restaurateur David Cangialosi is hedging his bets. He's the owner, with his father, of David & Dad's next door. At lunchtime Cangialosi's serves as overflow seating for the deli and carryout. If the Italian food thing doesn't fly, he can just continue to use it at lunchtime or open a French bistro or a new American restaurant without having to change as much as a napkin color.

In any case, the menu is pure family Italian. There's even a children's section with pasta, chicken fingers and grilled cheese. (As an indication of how food-savvy our kids have gotten, it's no longer spaghetti but "your favorite pasta" with tomato sauce, butter or meatball.)

This is sophisticated family Italian. What do I mean by that? Well, you aren't going to get iceberg lettuce but spring mix greens in your salads. Artisan bread is brought to the table with good olive oil. The place actually makes its own cannoli instead of importing them from Vaccaro's, the pastry shop in Little Italy where 99 percent of Baltimore's cannoli come from.

If you want a traditional dinner, you can choose from pastas and a few classic Italian entrees. There are also sandwiches and salads, but when you can get tortellini mimosa (cheese-filled pasta with pancetta and peas) and a small salad for $12.95, why settle for a sandwich?

Appetizers are decent without knocking your socks off. The eggplant rollatini might knock your socks off, but by 7 p.m. the kitchen was all out of it so we didn't get to try it. Two of us split a pretty antipasto with Italian cold cuts, cheese, slivers of roasted red pepper and olives on a bed of mixed greens.

The soup of the day, a modest egg drop and spinach, was based on homemade chicken stock. A plate of bruschetta was an unorthodox version: It lacked the good flavor of grilled bread and the cheese had been melted on top like an open-faced sandwich stuck under the broiler, but, with its fresh tomato topping, it pleased us anyway.

You don't really need an appetizer here. Unless you're particularly hungry, the crusty warm Italian bread and assorted olives that are brought to the table at the beginning of the meal will keep you happy till your dinner comes.

Main courses are where chef Emilio Sadaghiana shines. No, that's not an Italian name. He's a native of Iran who grew up in Rome, where he learned to cook. (His father was a diplomat.) Before Cangialosi's, he worked in the kitchens of Della Notte and Germano's in Little Italy.

If you're lucky, gnocchi Casalina will be the special the evening you're there. These plump, buttery little potato dumplings with slivers of red pepper are addictive. His chicken alla boscaiola is simple but effective: Mushrooms, olives and white wine enhance the tender boneless chicken breasts.

Salmon is sauced intriguingly with chopped tomatoes, capers, basil, wine and lemon juice. Only shrimp in garlic and olive oil over linguine failed to stand out. Sometimes less isn't more.

Dinners come with a simple green salad and penne with a bit of fresh-tasting tomato sauce or the vegetable of the day. This day it was a combination of new potatoes and green beans. Not exactly what you think of as family Italian, but nice anyway.

The kitchen's cannoli are a noble effort, but frankly, no better than Vaccaro's. A strawberry mousse cake and a lemon version are also available, neither made in house.

Although Cangialosi's has been open a couple of months, things are still a bit in flux, says David Cangialosi. For one thing, the restaurant will eventually have its own lunch menu and be open with table service during the day. I'm surprised he hasn't done that already. It would inspire more customers to try the restaurant at night.

Cangialosi's Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 336 N. Charles St.

Hours: Open for dinner Monday through Saturday

Prices: Appetizers, $4.95-$7.95; main courses, $9.95-$21.95

Call: 410-547-7122

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

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