Newest Liberatore's relaxes for the family

Restaurant Review

Palate

October 16, 2005|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

The new Liberatore's in Perry Hall is a sort of Liberatore's Lite. If you live in the Baltimore area, you may have been to the Liberatore's in Timonium, and you know it's as close as Timonium comes to a fine-dining restaurant. It's not really a place you'd take the kids or drop in wearing jeans and flip-flops, and it's an easy place to spend a lot of money.

Enter Perry Hall's Liberatore's.

This is the one of the five Liberatore's most oriented to families, with a kids' menu, light fare and pastas for inexpensive dinners. The wine list is pretty basic and includes more California bottles than you usually see at an Italian restaurant. There's also a carryout and catering operation that seems as big as the eat-in portion of the restaurant itself. (It's a little hard to judge, because only half the dining room is used except when the restaurant gets very busy. Otherwise a curtain separates the two halves and one is kept dark.)

The potential is here for food every bit as good as you've had at other Liberatore's. One giveaway is the fragrant fresh basil used in dishes like filet di pisa. But this dish also shows what can go wrong. Two beef filets were stacked with tomato slices (still decent, even this late in the season), creamy fresh mozzarella and a portobello mushroom. With mashed potatoes and fresh sauteed spinach, it could have been a satisfying dinner - except that the meat, ordered medium rare, arrived well done. Chalk one up to the staff, though. When I didn't want anything else, and I didn't want to wait to have it redone, they whisked the dish away without fuss. And without saying anything, the manager simply took it off the check.

The pasta fagioli soup with beans, bacon and pasta, was satisfying and comforting, except that my friend had to wait while the server removed the cream of crab soup that was brought by mistake. Clams casino, our waitress warned us, were chopped clams with plenty of breadcrumbs. (She had had complaints before.) We ordered them anyway, but the problem wasn't the crumbs. The clams were too salty to eat.

Baby spinach salad with crisp bacon, mushroom slices and an intriguing raspberry vinaigrette was drowning in the dressing, so you had to shake it off each bite. "Lollipop" lamb chops, each a tender bite, sat jauntily in a martini glass filled with green mint jelly, the perfect appetizer for carnivores except that the meat was greasy and you're supposed to eat them with your fingers.

Still, when the food is right, it's very right. The baby crab cakes blackened with Cajun spices, no more Italian than the lamb, were superb little nuggets filled with back fin.

Many of the classics are worth ordering. Soft-centered, crunchy, gold-crusted rounds of eggplant have just the right amount of melted mozzarella and sauce. Chunks of chicken and spicy sausage shine in a wine sauce studded with Greek olives and sliced pepperoncini. The penne that comes with entrees is elevated by a fresh-tasting tomato sauce.

Some dishes, like the veal Liberatore, you know are naughty but you order them anyway. The tender meat and lump crab are awash in a rich sauce, mostly heavy cream. Don't think about it, just use bread to dip up even more of the sauce.

Desserts fall in the naughty category, too - especially the ones that are made in-house. A moist yellow cake with thick coconut icing and a seductive tiramisu were my favorites, but there are plenty to chose from, including cannoli filled in-house but made with shells from Vaccaro's in Little Italy.

Liberatore's in Perry Hall has positioned itself to be the place you go when you're too tired to cook, so if you don't feel like Italian or anything heavy, you can also get buffalo wings, a crab cake sandwich, a burger, a chicken Caesar salad and the like.

In spite of the eclectic menu and the county location, Liberatore's in Perry Hall has the hallmarks of a Little Italy restaurant, the most important of which is a warm and welcoming staff.

elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

Food: ** 1/2 (Two and a half stars)

Service: *** (Three stars)

Atmosphere: ** 1/2 (Two and a half stars)

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

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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