Casual Italian, with fun on the menu

Restaurant Review

October 02, 2005|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

When it opened six years ago, Vespa Cafe and Wine Bar was just slightly ahead of its time. It was the first of a series of smart, casual eating places where a glass of wine was every bit as important as the good food -- places like Petit Louis Bistro, Tapas Teatro, Mezze and Pazo.

Each of these succeeds because it has its own distinct identity. Vespa is casual Italian, and you are not going to find chef Michael Russell sneaking a tortilla chip or a wasabi accent into the food just because it's trendy. He's been running the kitchen at Vespa since it opened -- a rarity in the business -- and as time goes on, he seems to be interested in making the food even more Italian.

Just about anything on the menu illustrates the point, but take the antipasto Vespa. Caponata, the spicy eggplant relish, is balanced by soft, mild, fresh mozzarella, with a flavorful chickpea salad, roasted peppers, prosciutto as thin as tissue paper and pickled caper berries rounding out the plate. It could start your meal or serve as a light supper with Vespa's focaccia and wine.

Although wine has been a priority since the beginning, over the years owner Stephen Ward has been emphasizing it even more, with tastings and other events. As you read this, he will be just returning from southern Italy where he was scouting out bottles for his all-Italian list. (He makes the trip to Italy a couple of times a year.) Each of the dinners comes with wine suggestions, both by the glass and bottles.

Most of the menu is taken up with small plates, pizzas and pastas, but Chef Russell can cook a mean entree when he wants to. He grills a game hen to crisp-skinned perfection, then layers it on warm polenta and a roasted pepper salad. Fresh grilled rockfish stands up beautifully to an explosion of flavors: fennel, artichokes, capers and tomatoes with a lemony undercurrent.

Grilling is the order of the day. Pizzas begin with a crisp grilled crust, then the other ingredients are arranged artistically on top. Not everyone will be happy with this, but it works for me. Especially when the toppings are spicy Italian sausage, roasted red peppers, mozzarella and golden raisins, tiny accents of sweetness that in no way dominate the whole.

The small plates get just as much of the kitchen's attention as the major players. Golden rounds of fried eggplant find a creamy counterpoint in herbed goat cheese, with a piquant tomato sauce adding delicious overkill.

The garlicky grilled bread with olive oil that serves as a base for the bruschetta has a wonderfully smoky flavor. It's swirled with smooth mascarpone cheese and draped with salmon cured with coffee and sambuca. The combination makes surprising sense.

Grilled octopus tossed with greens and croutons are the basis of a spectacular salad, but don't expect the promised panzanella (Italian bread salad). It was nowhere in sight.

Rigatoni tossed with a creamy ground turkey sauce and shaved Romano cheese was the only one of our dishes that didn't quite hit the mark. The monochromatic white-on-white bowl had less pizazz than the rest of our food, although there was nothing much wrong with it.

The dessert menu is short, with almost as much of an Italian focus as the rest of the food. The best, though, is the chocolate creme brulee, dark as velvet, with a brittle crust and walnut biscotti on the side. The house-made tiramisu would be even better without the chocolate drizzle, and a warm apple tart will be noteworthy when more flavorful apples are in season; but those are minor complaints.

I have always liked this space, which is contemporary without being cold. The Federal Hill storefront has been transformed with warm colors, interesting art, and a corrugated aluminum panel in back; for the last couple of years, there have been a few outdoor tables as well. On a busy night, you may feel crowded -- the bistro tables are quite close together. But this night was slow, and that meant the service was excellent as well.

Vespa is a neighborhood restaurant in the best sense of the word. There's not much turnover with the staff, says Ward, and of course having the chef around from the beginning means regulars know what they're going to get, visit after visit. Not everything is perfect, but there's a real sense of fun at Vespa. Isn't that what eating out should be all about?

VESPA CAFE AND WINE BAR

Address: 1117-21 S. Charles St., Federal Hill, 410-385-0355. Open nightly for dinner.

Appetizers: $5-$14

Entrees: $8-$24.

FOOD *** (3 stars)

SERVICE *** (3 stars)

ATMOSPHERE *** (3 stars)

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

elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

ASK THE CRITIC Have a question about dining out in the Baltimore area? Ask Elizabeth Large, The Sun's restaurant critic. E-mail questions to elizabeth.large@baltsun.com, or mail to Elizabeth Large, The Sun, Features, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, MD 21278. Answers to selected questions will appear in Modern Life.

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