Good wine, food with casual air is Enotria's way

October 24, 2004|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Carlo Fortunato opened his first pizza restaurant in Harford County when he was 15. The year was 1975. He had left his home in Naples, Italy, the year before, and, after a stint in Philadelphia, came to Bel Air, where he purchased Frank's Pizza.

That restaurant still exists, though he no longer owns it. In 1981, Carlo and his older brother, Vinny, opened the first Fortunato Brothers restaurant on Church Street in Bel Air. The sit-down restaurant sold pizzas, subs and other casual Italian fare, and it attracted such a following that the brothers opened others.

Eventually, there were 13 locations of the eat-in pizza and sub shop in Baltimore and Harford counties.

Though the pizza parlors were successful, Fortunato had something else in mind. In 1990, he purchased a plot of land along Route 24 in central Harford County. The area was undeveloped, but Fortunato knew that would change. His plan was to build a restaurant that would celebrate good wine and classic Italian food.

He opened that restaurant, Enotria, in 1998, along with partner Raimondo Lubrano, owner of Vespucci's and Cantina d'Italia, both in Annapolis.

"This was a dream, I guess," Fortunato said, sitting at a table one morning before the restaurant opened and looking at what he had created.

The name means "land of wine," and in ancient times that's what the southern tip of Italy was called, Fortunato said. Wine has a starring role in Fortunato's restaurant.

"Wine is a way of life," he said. "A good glass of wine will keep the doctors away."

He designed the restaurant to resemble a Tuscan winery, from the deep sienna of the stucco exterior to the tower shape along one side of the building, which mimics the towers that vintners climb to look out over their fields. Even the sign at the entrance to the parking lot shows a bunch of grapes.

From the inside, that tower is near the bar, and it creates a soaring sense of space. Also near the bar are two antique items, handed down from Fortunato's grandfather, Vincenzo Ambrosino, who grew grapes and pressed them into wine. One is a bellow-like device, used to blow pesticides on the grapes, and the other is similar to a hose.

Fortunato's grandfather taught him how to make wine, and love of food and drink is an important part of Fortunato's heritage. "Every Italian, they have that in their blood, food and wine," he said. "We grew up in the kitchen."

The walls of the spacious restaurant are painted with bunches of purple grapes, and posters show the various wine-making regions of Italy. High, beamed ceilings create a farmhouse feel. An enclosed patio is slightly more casual, with slate floors, iron chairs with backs in the shape of grape clusters, and walls sponge-painted a mustardy tone to create a weathered look.

Fortunato travels to Italy for two weeks every year to taste wines for the restaurant and to visit family members who still live there. He has compiled a list of wines that are generally less than $30 a bottle, as well as eight house wines that are offered by the glass. Most of Enotria's wines are from Italy, but a few California wines are showcased as well.

Recently, Fortunato added a list of wines with prices ranging from $90 to $349, but he knows most customers won't drink them on a regular basis. "They're for special occasions," he said.

Though Enotria takes wine seriously, it's not a stuffy place. The dress code is casual, and parents feel comfortable bringing young children. That's how Fortunato wants it. "You can enjoy a good meal and not have to be dressed up," he said.

A stack of highchairs sits by the front door, and a children's menu is offered that includes chicken fingers along with small portions of fettuccine Alfredo and other Italian fare.

For adults, the menu includes classic Italian dishes like veal parmigiana, chicken marsala and linguine with mussels, all costing less than $20. Breads and sauces are made in-house, and several specials are offered each night. The chef is Antonio Ortiz, who has worked at Tio Pepe's in Baltimore and other restaurants in the Washington area.

When Fortunato first opened the restaurant, he felt like he was working around the clock. "The first three years, I didn't move at all," he recalled. "I was always here."

These days, he arrives about 8 a.m. to check on things, then returns for the lunch and dinner shifts.

Now that he's opened the restaurant he always wanted, he has no immediate plans to expand.

His son, Camillo, 8, and daughter, Gabriella, 13, are too young to work in the restaurant, but his twin daughters, Catherine and Chiara, 20, work as waitresses and go to college.

"They said they might one day take over, but you never know," Fortunato said.

Enotria is open every day for lunch and dinner, and for brunch on Sunday. It is at 2 Newport Drive, Forest Hill, off Route 24. Call 410-836-0200 for reservations.

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