Buono brings Italian comfort food up to Mount Washington

December 04, 2005|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

It's almost inconceivable that an upscale steakhouse would close in this day and age -- they are usually so popular -- but McCafferty's did. Now a restaurant has opened in its place that I would say is even more of a sure thing: a moderately priced Italian trattoria. Of course, I was wrong before.

The space has been completely renovated, with warm Mediterranean colors and a much more casual feel. Buono isn't stylish, but it is comfortable. The tables are well-spaced so you don't feel crowded even when the restaurant is full, and the wall-to-wall carpeting helps keep the noise level down. What I really don't like is the new dropped ceiling. It doesn't work in a room this big.

The menu doesn't blaze any new paths, but who wants it to? It's as if your favorite Little Italy restaurant were transported up to Mount Washington, with homemade pastas, chicken parmigiana and fried calamari. Just about everything, except for the specials, costs less than $20. The wine list, too, is moderately priced and accessible, and not slavishly Italian.

Ingredients are beautifully fresh, and portions are generous. So what's not to like?

All in all, Buono is the perfect neighborhood restaurant -- or will be, if the kitchen works the kinks out. I'm usually pretty good at figuring out what a restaurant is like from a few dishes, but this one has me stumped. For every yin, there seems to be a yang.

Veal saltimbocca -- made with tender medallions of veal, fresh mozzarella and prosciutto -- came with perfectly steamed broccoli and sauteed mushrooms, but the dish was oversalted and overpeppered. On the other hand, a boneless chicken breast sauteed with roast peppers, mushrooms and artichokes in a white wine sauce was quite bland. On the other other hand, too much garlic made a shrimp and crab special so bitter it was almost inedible. The shrimp were fat and pink, the snowy crab lumps large, the delicate asparagus just tender crisp, the linguine beautifully cooked. But it tasted as if the dish had been seasoned with several cloves of raw garlic.

An enormous salmon fillet topped with lump crab imperial had none of the above flaws. You wouldn't think it came from the same kitchen except that it had some of the same good ingredients of our other entrees. That night it came on a bed of fresh spinach, only lightly garlicky.

Buono's pasta e fagioli is a delicate, flavorful version of the classic pasta and bean soup. It couldn't have been better; and it looked appetizing, too, with a bright green garnish of fresh parsley. But the fried calamari was tough, and tasted of the oil it was fried in.

The hot Italian antipasto can be had as a light meal, or you can split it as an appetizer. I recommend it for either. There are tender jumbo shrimp, little baked clams in the shell that slip down very easily, fresh broccoli florets pleasantly infused with garlic, sauteed mushrooms and one seductive indulgence: a bit of eggplant stuffed with mozzarella and a little tomato sauce. Have the antipasto with Buono's soft, hot bread and good butter, and you've got yourself a meal.

Interestingly, the kitchen makes its own cannoli for dessert (no, the shells don't come from Vaccaro's bakery) but according to our waitress, the rest of the desserts aren't housemade. They include a boozy tiramisu, a dense chocolate cake and what I think is my favorite kind of cheesecake: very simple (without crust or fruit or extraneous flavorings), very rich, very classic, very good.

Up until now, Mount Washingtonians have had to go down to Little Italy to get this kind of cozy comfort food, so it's worth giving the place more time to get its act together. Buono has potential, but what it needs most is some consistency in the kitchen.

BUONO

Address: 1501 Sulgrave Ave., Mount Washington

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers: $6-$13, entrees: $10-$25

Call: 410-466-3884

elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

FOOD -- ** 2 STARS

SERVICE -- *** 3 STARS

ATMOSPHERE -- ** 1 / 2 2 1/2 STARS

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

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