Pizzazz Tuscan Grille, the latest tenant in the Pier V Hotel dining space, is a restaurant I want to love. And you will, too.
It has all the right things going for it.
First of all, the food is Italian - a cuisine that seems to be surviving better than many in this recession. The nice thing about Italian food is that it always seems wonderfully indulgent, even when it's the budget version. And at Pizzazz, you hardly notice that this is what the owners call "new Italian," with an emphasis on healthful ingredients, organic when possible, grain- and vegetable-heavy and meat-light.
All sorts of accommodations to special diets are available, such as soy or rice cheese, a cornmeal or whole-wheat crust for the pizza and various vegetable pastas. The sauces are made with organic vegetable stock; vegans will find plenty to like here.
Prices are extremely reasonable, especially for a location this near to the current trendiest neighborhood in Baltimore, Harbor East. The wine list includes the usual suspects but is as affordable as the menu.
Most of the dishes come in piccoli (small) or grande (regular) sizes, and are priced accordingly. You can have the rockfish alla Pietro dinner, for instance, in a four- or eight-ounce portion for $12 or $18.
And then there's the pizza. How can you not love a place that has pizza for dinner in case you don't want an appetizer and main course?
Add to all that the fact that the dining room has been charmingly redone, with tomato-red walls, black-and-white floors, bistro-style white paper on the tables and vintage drink posters on the walls. The adjacent deck overlooks the water and should be perfect now that the weather has gotten cooler.
The hostess and servers could not have been nicer, and the meal arrived pretty much on schedule. Of course, the place was quiet the night we were there. I imagine it's busiest at lunchtime when folks are already in the area, because parking is expensive to come here for dinner.
But for me to love Pizzazz as much as I want to, the kitchen needs to step it up a notch. If it doesn't, you need to follow my guidelines on ordering carefully.
Take the pizza, described as having a hand-tossed, thin, "crispy" crust. It was instead soft and a bit doughy - a longer spell in the oven would have helped. Too bad, because the topping of roasted peppers, fresh tomato slices, olives and artichokes was great.
Still, if we had stuck to the vegetarian offerings, the food would have gotten three stars, starting with the delicious cold-pressed olive oil with grated parmesan and herbs that comes with the bread. I could have licked the bowl clean.
But the fish, both the rockfish and the salmon that came on a pasta dish, were overcooked and not the freshest fish I've ever eaten. After saying that, I probably shouldn't complain that the rockfish piccoli portion seemed less than four ounces. Four ounces of meat or fish per person is pretty much what we eat in my family, so I have a good eye.
The rockfish came with a lovely lemon and caper sauce and with just-tender asparagus spears. The salmon's pasta was even better: whole-wheat farfalle with peas and a creamy pink vodka sauce.
We didn't have much luck with ordering the small sizes, now that I think about it, although this is the way we should eat. But I blame the kitchen. The cappellini had a fine sauce of fresh local tomatoes and fresh mozzarella; but so (I guess) the piccoli portion wouldn't seem skimpy, the dish had a normal amount of pasta, but not enough sauce to go with it. Less pasta would have been fine.
I wouldn't have ordered veal here - it was too inexpensive - but my guest wanted it. It wasn't bad, about what you'd expect at $12 and $16, with a nice golden crust and lightly sauteed fresh spinach.
Salads might be the way to go at Pizzazz. Seven are offered, each more tempting than the last. The greens are organic, and ingredients like fennel, avocado, asparagus and artichoke hearts give them some heft. The insalata Mediterranean dressed with cold-pressed olive oil, sea salt and lemon juice was just about perfect.
The signature soup on the menu is a delicate vegan vegetable, with a flavorful broth and some interesting additions like fava beans and fresh corn.
Vegetarians will also appreciate the broccoli raab and cannellini beans tossed with Parmigiano-Reggiano, served with crisp crostini. Asparagus spears covered with panko crumbs, fried and served with a tomato aioli work better in the imagining than in the eating, but they weren't bad.
Surprisingly, Pizzazz has a dessert tray with 14 items on it. Even more surprisingly, the ones we tried were all fresh. I'm guessing there must be a pastry chef around who also does catering for the hotel. In any case, these are as deliciously not good for you as you were hoping dessert would be after your healthful dinner.
The bottom line? I liked this place and would like to have one in my neighborhood, but the food needs some tweaking. Stick to the vegetarian offerings, though, and you won't have to worry about it.
Pizzazz Tuscan Grille
Where:: 711 Eastern Ave. at Pier V Hotel
Contact:: 410-528-7772, PizzazzTuscanGrille.com.
Hours:: Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner; closes at 6 p.m. on Sunday.
Prices:: Appetizers: $5-$12; entrees: $6-$20.
Food:: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)
Service:: *** (3 stars)
Atmosphere:: *** (3 stars)
[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]