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Tapabar is not Italian — so get over it and enjoy

Over the years, a few brave souls have opened restaurants in Little Italy that aren't Italian - not many, but some. India Rasoi and Mo's Seafood come to mind.

I can see why it might be tempting. You're guaranteed there will be a lot of foot traffic past your front door. Customers feel safe in Little Italy, and they come in droves to walk around as well as eat. Parking, with the new lots, is not a problem.

The disadvantage, of course, is that you're not an Italian restaurant. People come to Little Italy expecting to eat pasta and cacciatore, parmigiana, and fra diavolo dishes. The question is whether they will change their minds when they see the cute tapas restaurant on the corner of High and Eastern, and eat there instead. If I had to judge on the basis of our visit, on a weeknight about a month after Tapabar opened, I would have to say no. It was empty from the time we arrived until when we left a few hours later, except for two people who came in for a drink at the bar.

That's too bad, because Tapabar has a lot to recommend it. Unfortunately, at a tapas restaurant, you need a critical mass of people eating good food and enjoying themselves before you can truly have a good time.

The space that was Cafe di Roma has been handsomely redecorated in warm Mediterranean colors. There's a bar along one side and a sort of solarium on the other where lots of blond wood tables for two are grouped. If you have more than two, you push the tables together. In the summer, the space probably gets very hot; but it's pleasantly warm now.

Two other tapas places in town, Mezze and Tapas Teatro, have shown that you don't have to be Spanish to have a successful small plates restaurant. The owner of Tapabar, Carolina Llaguno, is a native of Venezuela. Still, this is more authentically Spanish than some tapas bars; Llaguno uses her Spanish grandmother's recipes as well as offering some Venezuelan, Peruvian and Argentinian dishes.

When you sit down, the server will bring a little container of olives. Bread follows quickly, with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping. We were hungry, so we ordered a plate of artisan cheeses to tide us over. The selection of mostly mild Spanish cheeses, fruit and squares of fruit paste was excellent, but it took a long time to appear - as did other dishes. Although our waitress was attentive, the kitchen was slow, even considering that everything was made to order. That doesn't bode well for when there are more customers.

The emphasis is on local produce. Next time, I might order just vegetarian dishes like the grilled vegetables with a mango salsa; the spinach sauteed with apples, raisins and pine nuts; and the delicious sweet potato puree. That sweet potato puree, smooth as silk, turned up on a plate of snowy white grouper fillet in a white cream sauce. Although the fish was very fresh, the sweet potatoes outshone it.

I would also seriously consider ordering any dish with Tapabar's chorizo. The mildly spicy Spanish sausage showed up sauteed with onions and peppers, and on a plate with a thin piece of steak (cooked too long for my taste) topped with chimichurri sauce.

Chorizo is, of course, an essential ingredient of Tapabar's paella, along with shrimp, calamari and mussels. We almost ordered it, but decided instead on cazuela de marisco, a sort of paella without the rice (and, alas, without chorizo, but we had ordered the sausage in other dishes so we weren't deprived). The mussels, clams and shrimp floated in a full-flavored tomato and wine sauce studded with bright green peas. Luckily, the waitress kept the bread coming; we needed it to sop up the sauce.

A boneless chicken breast stuffed with olives, plums and raisins offered an intriguing combination of sweet and vinegary-salty flavors, but it wasn't as thrilling as some other dishes. Still, the only thing I wouldn't order again was the chicken empanadas, which were dry.

On another visit, I'm looking forward to trying the Peruvian ceviche, but we stopped ordering small plates; we wanted to save room for dessert. We had also filled up on Tapabar's sangria, which was very fruity and sweet - sweeter than I liked because I tended to drink it like fruit juice, which it wasn't. The place also has a full bar and a bistro wine list that emphasizes "green" wines. (In fact, there's a tasting of them on Wednesday evenings from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.)

Desserts surprised me. One option was a chocolate fondue, supposedly made with Toblerone, cream and Cointreau. I didn't get any of the nougat bits a Toblerone bar has, but whatever. It was fabulous, thick chocolate. Fruit came with it for dipping, but even better, order the churros and dip the feather-light, crisp twists of fried dough in the chocolate.

If all this sounds too extravagant to you, the house-made flan is very, very good.

We were lonely, but we had a good meal. I'm hoping all Tapabar needs is a little promotion for people to discover it. It's already holding those free wine tastings and giving out cards for a free glass of wine with an entree on your next visit. (Remember, "entrees" cost as little as $3.95.)

Tapabar doesn't have the built-in customer base that Tapas Teatro does with the Charles Theatre and Everyman, but then, neither does Mezze. Baltimoreans just have to get their heads around the idea that you don't have to be Italian to be a restaurant in Little Italy.

tapabar Address: 413 High St., Little Italy

Hours: Tapas served Tuesday through Saturday nights, continental breakfast Saturday and Sunday.

Prices: Tapas: $3.95-$15.95.

Contact: 410-223-3020

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

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