It's a strikeout for new fare in ballpark taste test

April 05, 2006|By ROB KASPER

There is a time to be a daring eater, but it is not when you are going to a ballgame. Trips to the ballpark are all about ritual, about repeating prior tastes and smells.

I knew this. But a few days ago, as the opening of baseball season drew near, I did a dumb thing. I went to Camden Yards for the first Orioles game played in Baltimore this year - a pre-season Saturday-afternoon contest with the Washington Nationals - and I ate new stuff.

Instead of grilled dogs, I ate panini. Instead of Boog's pit beef, I sampled steamed shrimp.

As an eater, I had what the sportswriters would call a "rough outing." The shrimp was overcooked. The panini, a grilled sandwich that hails from Italy, tasted like it was a long way from home.

When I did a post-meal analysis, I settled on two reasons for the disappointing afternoon.

One was the quality of the fare. It was not in midseason form. The shrimp ($10.50), a generous portion sprinkled with Old Bay seasoning, looked inviting when I got it at the Diamond Bistro on the club level. But like a pitcher on the mound too long, it had spent too much time in the steamer and lost its muscle tone.

On Saturday, the folks working the concession stands for Aramark were still working out the kinks in their operation. When, for example, I first tried to order a panini, a new menu item at the two Big Mario's pizza stands on the lower level, I got a lot of blank looks.

Eventually the mystery of the sandwich was solved; I got one of the $6.50 offerings. Technically a single sandwich is, I am told, a panino. In Italy, where these "small breads" are sold on street corners, they are filled with prosciutto, tomato, fresh basil, olive tapenade, Parmigiano-Reggiano and pecorino cheeses, and served on thin, crisp bread, often focaccia. Sometimes the entire sandwich is grilled, or pressed, in a hinged cooker that compresses the contents and leaves marks on the bread.

The Camden Yards panini was pressed. But it tasted more like a squashed ham-and-cheese sandwich found in any American diner.

The other reason for my down day at the ballpark was my mind-set. I associate certain foods with being in Camden Yards. Those foods are grilled hot dogs; Italian-sausage sandwiches loaded with peppers; pit-beef sandwiches; and cold Maryland beer.

I didn't meet up with any of those old friends on Saturday, and I was unhappy. On Monday, the rainy opening day of the baseball season, I did better.

On my way into the game, I grabbed a $2 grilled hot dog with sauerkraut from Wild Bill's Grill, a stand set up on an island on the west side of Paca Street. The dog, which registered 173 degrees on my instant-read thermometer, had grilled flavor and great snap. Two hours before game time, with a slight drizzle falling, the stand was surrounded by a sea of hungry humanity.

In the ballpark I got a $7 pit-beef sandwich from Boog Powell's stand. His Eutaw Street kettle cookers apparently had been granted an exception to a recent statewide ban on charcoal grilling because they are surrounded by concrete, not drought-affected countryside. The smoky pit-beef sandwich, topped with Boog's tangy sauce, showed no signs of drought.

Once I had eaten my familiar ballpark fare, I felt much better. So when the umpire says, "Play ball," I say forget the panini. Go for the hot dog.

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