Doug H. had lived and worked in Baltimore for 13 years before he moved to Annapolis, but he had never heard of Marconi's. Doug H. got taken to the local landmark for dinner recently, ordered minestrone and shrimp Creole and pronounced the restaurant "nice but dated."
Elizabeth L., a longtime resident of Baltimore who knew Marconi's well, ordered the lobster Cardinale, the fried eggplant, the creamed spinach, the strawberry Melba. She didn't say much (she was too busy eating), but she smiled a lot.
So it goes. How to explain the appeal of this old-fashioned restaurant to those who don't have it as part of their pasts? How to justify a wine list that not only doesn't list vintages, it doesn't even list vineyards?
Either Marconi's quirks will seem the epitome of Old World charm, or they will make you grumpy. (As restaurants do in Europe, for instance, Marconi's charges extra for bread and butter.)
Many years ago I reviewed Marconi's and complained about my veal dish. An outraged reader called and chewed me out. "Everyone knows not to order veal at Marconi's."
Everyone knows not to order shrimp Creole at Marconi's if you're expecting anything but a mild, bland version, because - frankly - much of the restaurant's clientele isn't as young as it used to be, and its collective stomachs can't tolerate very spicy food. (At least that's my theory.)
You order the lobster Cardinale if you're in the mood for something extravagant. Lobster meat, mushrooms, lots of cream, sherry and Gruyere cheese are arranged in the lobster shell and broiled for a few minutes. It's a handsome dish. Or you have one of the oyster specials, like the plump little sauteed oysters arranged on a slice of Smithfield ham. Usually the lamb chops are wonderfully reliable, but this evening they had a distinct lamb flavor - too strong for my taste.
As for first courses, you can order minestrone like Doug H. did, but it isn't much more than vegetable soup. Instead, have the delicious antipasto, which features fat lumps of lobster with Russian dressing, a couple of steamed shrimp with cocktail sauce, quarters of hard-boiled egg, a fine slaw, Italian cold cuts, pimentoes and anchovies.
I'm not a fan of the house salad, which is chopped lettuce, egg and tomatoes in a very mayonnaisey dressing; but Marconi's clientele seems to love it. Instead, I'd have one of the vegetables (everything is a la carte here), specifically the fried eggplant. It tastes like eggplant but has the texture of a cloud and a crisp gold exterior. The creamed spinach isn't bad either.
Doug H. had a slice of the "Dark Side of the Moon" chocolate cake for his dessert. Foolish. Everyone knows that such a trendy dessert wouldn't be a big seller at Marconi's, so chances are it wouldn't be all that fresh. And, indeed, it was a bit dry. Elizabeth L. had rich vanilla ice cream with plump strawberries and Melba sauce. Her husband and their other guest shared Marconi's signature dessert: more of that good ice cream with homemade bittersweet fudge sauce served in a bowl on the side.
Doug H. glanced around and probably wondered what he was doing sitting on an uncomfortable bentwood chair in a dining room that looks like a pale green and white wedding cake (with elaborate crystal chandeliers). Elizabeth L. sat back and enjoyed being waited on by a truly professional and responsive waiter - one who never even introduced himself.
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *