In an uncertain economy, you can't expect new restaurants to take a lot of chances. Doing the tried-and-true doesn't guarantee you'll still be open a year from now, but it feels safer. If you're an Italian restaurant, your standard of tried-and-true is surely Little Italy, so it's no surprise that the new Ristorante Due Isole feels very much like a place that belongs a few blocks west in Baltimore's favorite ethnic neighborhood.
It's family-owned, for one thing, with the family in evidence in the dining room and the open kitchen. Carmelo and Laura Fertitta run the place with their daughter Patricia and son-in-law Fabio Mura. Mura, the executive chef, hails from Sardinia. Carmelo Fertitta is a native of Sicily, the second of the two islands of the restaurant's name.
Remember Opa!, the Greek restaurant you passed on your way to Canton? That's the spot Ristorante Due Isole has taken over. Opa! closed with damage from Tropical Storm Isabel and never reopened. I don't know why, but my guess is that business wasn't great because of the location. It's halfway between Little Italy and Canton, and there's nothing much else around. The good news is that parking has never been a problem.
The new place has an attention-getting red neon sign: Ristorante Italiano. That should help. And it has a cozy dining room next to the open kitchen, something you have to appreciate this winter. The restaurant's generic Mediterranean decor is pleasant without being memorable, with sponge-painted walls, grapevine trellises on the ceiling and a bit of wrought iron. (There's another dining room next to this one that's used when the place is busier.)
Chef Mura is no risk taker. He has a respect for the classics but is willing to surprise his guests in small ways. A zuppa di pesce, for instance, has all the right stuff for a hearty fish stew: clams the size of a thumb nail, mussels, tender calamari, fat little shrimp and scallops, all enhanced by a rich tomato broth. The surprise is the puff pastry crust on top of the huge bowl, which keeps the broth and shellfish scaldingly hot till you break the flaky crust with your fork.
The small surprises start from the beginning, with a plate of crisp Sardinian flatbread and a bowl of the chopped tomato and onion "salad" you find on bruschetta. The salad made its appearance again as a "unique Mediterranean mixed vegetable sauce" for some fine, smoky-edged grilled calamari on a skewer. Or who knows? Maybe the kitchen had run out of the unique Mediterranean mixed vegetable sauce and substituted the chopped-tomato combo.
Mura places three handsome shrimp on a salad of wilted escarole and white beans with a drizzle of dressing to good effect. He adds cherry peppers to the mussels' traditional tomato, garlic and white-wine sauce for an explosive burst of flavor. The restaurant's one soup isn't minestrone or Italian wedding; there's something different every day. This day it was a thick, smooth potato puree decorated with crumbled bacon and chopped parsley.
And another small surprise: The specials are in the same price range as items on the regular menu. (Am I sounding a little cynical here?)
Some surprises don't quite work. Risotto with taleggio cheese ought to be outlawed. The rich, soft comfort food is that good. But on top lay slices of duck breast whose smoky seasonings were subtle and unappealing. A more completely satisfying meal was the gnocchi sardi di cagliari, with the "dumplings" made Sardinian style with flour instead of potato so they resembled tiny curled pasta (but exceptionally tender pasta). The tomato sauce with anise-flavored sausage and mushrooms avoided the heaviness trap.
Medallions of veal topped with grilled eggplant had grated parmesan and cherry tomatoes to give them zing, but the traditional brown sauce did nothing to make us remember the dish. Flanking the veal with zucchini strips and quarters of new potatoes was a good idea -- except the potatoes, oddly enough, were stone cold.
You can't fault the desserts here. Well, actually the so-called profiterole, here a large cream puff with a thick chocolate sauce, is too heavy to follow a substantial meal like this. But to make up for it, the panna cotta with berries is a smooth, delicate creation and the airy tiramisu will remind you why tiramisu was such a trendy dessert a few years ago.
How you feel about Ristorante Due Isole will depend on what you want in your Italian restaurants. If it's cutting-edge cuisine or a home-style Italian meal at cut-rate prices, you won't find either here. But if you love the comfort and familiarity of Little Italy restaurants, and you're willing to pay for them, you'll like that those qualities have moved east to Ristorante Due Isole.
Ristorante Due Isole
Atmosphere: ** 1/2
Where: 1911 Aliceanna St., Fells Point
Hours: Open Monday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $8-$10; main courses, $16-$28
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *