Rapidly gentrifying Belvedere Square is becoming an important destination for area foodies.
A year ago, the vastly improved Belvedere Square Market opened, with vendors selling smoked meats, sushi and fresh soups. The shopping center across from the Senator Theatre on York Road now boasts the Grand Cru wine bar and an Irish pub called Ryan's Daughter, as well as other chic stores.
Egyptian Pizza, which has been in the square since 1990, is one of the few survivors from the square's less upscale days. More than a pizza parlor and slightly less than a full-scale restaurant, it is nice enough to stand with the new high-end tenants.
Tables and chairs are black, the service is sit-down, and whimsical touches like a massive fake lotus flower and faux hieroglyphics along one wall add charm. Diners can bring their own wine.
The kitchen, where a brick oven cooks the pitas and pizzas, is visible beyond the counter. A metal island shakes wildly as chefs work away (and sometimes argue.)
Meanwhile, they're churning out dozens of variations of street fare from the Middle East and Italy, ranging from falafel, shawarma and shish kebab to pizza and pasta. And let's not forget the scampi, Greek salad, leek pasta and eggplant fries.
It's hard to believe such a small kitchen can deliver such an extensive menu and prepare everything quickly and to order, but Egyptian Pizza makes it look easy.
A spinach pie appetizer is clearly homemade and emerges warm from the brick oven. The calzone-like exterior holds carefully chosen leaves of barely wilted spinach, cubes of feta, slivers of onion and lots of garlic.
The Middle Eastern combination platter, a steal at $9.95, overflows with treasures. Crispy, delicious falafel balls have tender green interiors and the generous dollops of creamy hummus, foul and baba gannouj tastes, respectively, of the chick peas, fava beans and roasted eggplant from whence they came, only better. Also on the platter, but not quite as good, are large grape-leaf cylinders stuffed with an uninteresting flavored rice, and a feta-flecked salad that has seen better days. The whole thing arrives with a basket of warm pita.
The thin-crusted pizzas, made with a pita-like dough, are topped with everything from smoked salmon and boursin cheese to chicken, pineapple and pignolis. We chose the Sunset Boulevard, with curried lamb and mozzarella. It almost worked, except for the improbable strips of puff pastry strewn across the top. It arrives with a small plastic cup of pineapple salsa that is tasty but unnecessary, and is topped with warm, wilted mushrooms, tomatoes and onions.
Certain items appear again and again. The shawarma is a mix of tender chicken and lamb strips with the same mushroom veggie combo. It is served over rice with the same seen-better-days salad. The salad and rice are also paired with the fish kebab, which features a piece of salmon that is beautifully charred on the outside and still moist and flaky within.
Dessert choices are similarly far-ranging and include several cheesecakes and a white chocolate mousse cake. We chose the only two made in-house, the baklava and the rice pudding. The baklava, served warm, was sweet, flaky and generously studded with pistachios and almonds. The rice pudding was a touch gluey in texture and bland for my taste.
If you're thinking all this reminds you of the Al Pacino Cafe in Baltimore, the Nile Cafe of Owings Mills or Egyptian Pizza in Fells Point, that's because owner Mohamed Mahmoud started those restaurants and then sold them. Belvedere Square is now his only location, but he's opening an Egyptian Pizza in Wilmington, Del., he said. I imagine it will be just as successful there as it is here.
Egyptian Pizza Cafe
Where: 542 E. Belvedere Ave., Belvedere Square
Open: daily for lunch and dinner
Credit cards: All major
Prices: Appetizers $2-$9.95, entrees $6.95-$13.95
Service: ** 1/2