Now this is dining.
The polenta appetizer ($14.95) at Trattoria Alberto has a consistency and silkiness rarely associated with cornmeal. But then again, polenta is the pasta of Northern Italy, and this is a Northern Italian restaurant. The pleasure delivered by this dish is lifted even higher by the sauce that accompanies it, a rich, flavorful reduction of cream, sun-dried tomato and mushrooms.
Hard though it is to top the polenta, the vegetarian lasagna ($21.95) soars. This is a delicate house-made pasta layered with fresh vegetables that have been cooked just enough to release their flavor. Bits of carrot in the lasagna still have crunch. The sauce, made with basil, I was told, is unlike any béchamel I have made at home — lighter, yet more vibrant. Topped with a sprinkling of freshly grated Parmesan, it's a delight.
The good times do not stop there. The veal saltimbocca ($24.95) is almost fork-tender, the richness of the veal counterpointed by the distinctive bite of the prosciutto and the fresh sage leaves that rest upon it. In so much saltimbocca, the sage gets lost. Here, it makes its presence known, and the results are pleasing.
The beef is exquisite. The kitchen's adroit, inventive handling of aged Angus beef seems to be a pillar of this restaurant's menu. The night my wife and I were there, the kitchen was serving tricolor beef ($31.95), a tender filet, broiled and topped with a marvelous gorgonzola cheese and crisp pancetta. The meat had the deep, beefy flavor of a well-cured steak. The gorgonzola was a perfect companion, edgy without being too sharp. Beef bliss.
If you judge a kitchen by how well it prepares its side dishes — not a bad standard — this one excels. The green beans that accompanied the veal and the beef were perfect: fresh, not complicated, not sauced up. The beans were allowed to be beans, and quite flavorful at that. It's a pretty good trick to pull off in January.
Desserts ($8.50) are made on the premises and are more evidence of skill in the kitchen. The tiramisu, creamier than most versions, is heavenly, with delicate coffee notes. The chocolate profiterole is an intense revel.
While the food here is exceptional, there are caveats to the Trattoria Alberto experience. One is the setting. It sits in a strip mall on Crain Highway. Once inside the door, the fresh flowers on the tables, the paintings on the walls and the opera playing in the speakers transport you. But if you look out the window and see the glowing sign of an insurance agency, some of the magic dissipates.
Another is the price. With most entrees in $20 and $30 range (less at lunch), this is fine dining. Market-price specials can be even higher. I happen to think it is worth it, but it might be too steep for some.
The wine list, however, could use some recalculating. Most bottles start at $30 and climb skyward. I read recently that midprice wines, those selling at $9-$12 retail, are the fastest-growing part of the wine market. Trattoria Alberto could use a few more midprice wines. That being said, they pour a nice glass of Montepulciano ($8.50).
The staff is gracious, greeting customers warmly, hanging their coats, asking regulars about the well-being of relatives. The staff is also opinionated. If you are even slightly in doubt what you should have for dinner, they will readily tell you. They seem to be right. But do ask the price of the specials.
While Trattoria Alberto is a special-occasion restaurant, it delivers exceptional Northern Italian dishes. Enjoy the cuisine — just don't look out the window.
Where: 1660 Crain Highway, Glen Burnie
Contact: 410-761-0922, trattoriaalberto.com
Open: Lunch: 11:30 a.m-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; Dinner: 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Credit Cards: All major
[Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭ Good: ✭✭✭ Fair or uneven: ✭✭ Poor: ✭]