An amiable Italian experience in Annapolis

La Mona Lisa treats visitors to pleasures of baroque dining

Sunday Gourmet

April 25, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Some like their Italian restaurants warm and cozy. Some prefer chic and avant garde. But if you enjoy Italian restaurants in the baroque style, I've got one for you: La Mona Lisa Ristorante Italiano in Annapolis.

You know the kind of place I mean. The kind that has cherubs in ornate gold frames hanging on the walls, and profiteroles slathered in hot fudge sauce for dessert. The black-tied maitre d', who treats you like his new best friend, is so ingratiating you almost wish you were.

Italian restaurants in the baroque style have lots of pleasures and not much attitude. The chairs are comfortable, the glassware sparkles in the candlelight, the table linen is snowy white. When your husband knocks over a full glass of chianti and it spreads in a ruby stain across the snowy white table linen, the waiter handles it with a minimum of fuss. He quickly moves everyone to another table, while managing to suggest that the whole thing was no disruption at all.

When the staff is this amiable, you have to forgive them for the long waits between courses, waits long enough to finish War and Peace. Maybe it was the kitchen's fault; I know good food takes time to prepare, but this wasn't a particularly busy night for the restaurant.

And if the kitchen frequently oversalts the sometimes quite wonderful food, you can almost forgive that as well, because the total experience is better than the sum of its parts.

Almost, but not quite.

First, the good news. This is an expensive restaurant, but Monday through Thursday La Mona Lisa offers a four-course tasting menu for $40 a person. Take the menu descriptions as suggestions rather than promises. Prosciutto with sweet winter melon is heavy on the tissue-thin prosciutto and light on the winter melon, particularly as it seems to be cantaloupe, but this classic combination is still hard to beat. Soft little gnocchi are snug in their lightly garlicky pesto sauce with lots of good parmesan. (They're just a bit too salty.) In general, pastas here are inventive and rewarding. A special appetizer this night -- not part of the tasting menu -- pairs two tender pumpkin ravioli in a creamy sauce with a bit of fettuccine tossed with peas, prosciutto and cherry tomatoes.

The second course on the tasting menu is a choice between the house salad and a fine soup that's a smooth puree of asparagus and cream. Soup is definitely in order here, and, true to form, La Mona Lisa's soups are wonderfully overwrought and wickedly caloric. The kitchen, for instance, can marry cream, sweet peppers and large lumps of snowy crab meat and still manage to convince you it's a light soup.

For some reason, the waiter substitutes a more elaborate salad for the house salad on the tasting menu. I'm not complaining. It seduces with arugula, strawberries, and a crisp-crusted round of fried goat cheese with a meltingly soft center.

The main courses on the tasting menu include a grilled filet mignon and veal scaloppine in a marsala sauce. But our waiter recommends the pink slices of duck breast. They lie hidden beneath a dark, intensely flavorful sauce scented with honey and balsamic vinegar.

Seafood isn't ignored here. A flaky white fillet of halibut stands up beautifully to its assertive sauce of olives, tomatoes and capers. Too salty? My husband thought so.

To get the best of two worlds, order a whole bronzini, a Mediterranean sea bass, which the waiter fillets expertly at the table. You have the flavor and texture that only a whole fish delivers, and do none of the work. But to appreciate the baroque restaurant experience fully, order the fat pork chop, almost a pound of it, stuffed with gorgonzola and pears and slathered in a brandy-cream sauce.

Accompaniments to all the main courses, uninspired and oversalted, are almost not worth mentioning here. An ice cream scoop of mashed potatoes is flanked by some broccoli and cauliflower florets, looking a little neglected on the plate.

Dessert on the tasting menu is a choice between panna cotta (a shivery egg custard) or tiramisu. Both are quite nice, but outshone by their sauces -- creme anglaise and raspberry for the former and creme anglaise and chocolate for the latter, swirled in the most elaborate patterns imaginable. Otherwise it's the profiteroles or -- rather startlingly -- a decent key lime pie.

There is a place for restaurants like La Mona Lisa, and I'm glad of it. It's not really the present or future of Italian cuisine, but so what? Indulging in a soup composed mostly of cream or a pork chop stuffed with pears and gorgonzola is a timeless pleasure. The kitchen just needs to be goosed a little to get the food out quicker -- and hide the salt shaker.

La Mona Lisa

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 2444 Solomons Island Road, Annapolis

Hours: Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner nightly

Prices: Appetizers, $10-$14; main courses, $18-$35

Call: 410-266-7595

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