Carpaccio: Some raw, some well-done

I sometimes wonder how a new restaurant gets a name like Carpaccio. Do the owners sit around and brainstorm and end up choosing it because it sounds interesting and Italian and most people don't know what carpaccio is anyway?

Certainly carpaccio (originally thin shavings of raw beef) is featured on the menu - actually six different carpacci - and very good carpaccio it is, judging from the one we sampled. But Annapolis' newest Italian restaurant has a huge menu, with everything from pizza to Tuscan-style steaks on it. You could just as easily call the place Risotto or Antipasto.

Carpaccio is in the huge new Park Plaza complex, which has condos, a hotel, shopping and several eating places. The restaurant's location gives it the feel of an upscale chain; but it's actually part of a local restaurant group that includes several more casual eating places, such as Sazzio, Squisito's and Pomo Grille. This is the group's crown jewel, a large, glossy, handsome restaurant with good food and a decent list of mostly Italian and Californian wines. It seems to be an instant hit, and the fact that it's not hugely expensive must be one reason why.

Carpaccio's dining room is so big and crowded (it seats 150) you know it's going to be noisy, but it's not as bad as a contemporary dining room can be. There are acoustical ceiling tiles and some fabric. The booths are comfortable, and the gold, brown and terra cotta color scheme with wood and decorative tile give the place a Mediterranean feel. It's somewhat impersonal, but the friendly staff make up for that.

If I went again, I'd stick to the first courses and try the pizza. We shared the carpaccio di manzo parma and a Tuscan Market Platter to begin. With bread and wine, we could barely make it through two more courses.

The tissue-thin slices of filet mignon were overlapped around a center of arugula with capers, shavings of parmesan and a drizzle of aioli. You can also get a second beef carpaccio with mushrooms and truffle oil, a tuna carpaccio with avocado, and three other variations.

The market platter had cured meats (salami, prosciutto, mortadella) along one side and Italian cheeses along the other. In the center were artichoke hearts, roasted peppers, olives, eggplant and mushrooms. You can't help but eat the restaurant's good bread with these, so a salad is probably all you'll need afterward.

Or you can do what we did and have a creamy risotto with porcini mushrooms and truffle oil, the parmesan melting into the warm rice. There are classic pasta dishes, like bolognese, but also more inventive choices, such as the paccheri Michelangelo, the al dente pasta tubes in a white wine sauce overflowing with clams, mussels, calamari and crab meat, with arugula and sundried tomatoes adding a touch of color.

The kitchen missed a bit with venison scallopini, which were tender but overcooked and swam in a port wine demi-glace that tasted more like a port wine gravy. Figs were a pick-me-up for the dish, but the sliced "Tuscan potatoes" were grievously oversalted.

With the Salmon Casino Style, the kitchen redeemed itself. This was a fat fillet with a bit of cheese and breadcrumb stuffing over a suave crab risotto. When you consider the salmon dish cost $19.99, you can see why this place is so popular.

Carpaccio offers variations on classic Italian desserts, like the tiramisu trio of classic, banana and strawberry. (Easy on the cocoa powder on top and you'll have a winner here, folks.) Two miniature cannoli were too sweet. The chocolate ganache cake had the virtue of being fresh, but it didn't hold a candle to the citrus-scented Italian cheesecake.

All of these were overdecorated, served on big plates with drizzles of chocolate syrup everywhere. Less could be more. While I'm discussing ornamentation, I wouldn't finish off every entree with a sprig of rosemary. It only belongs there if the herb is used in the dish.

The coffee was excellent, as was a cappuccino. The service was smooth and surprisingly good considering how busy Carpaccio was, although there were waits between courses.

Carpaccio is the kind of Italian restaurant you'd like in your town, but it's not destination dining for Baltimoreans. It has an impersonal feel to it, as if you could find it in any city. That's not really a knock. Decent Italian food and an affordable wine list, a handsome setting, convenient parking, and reasonable prices as long as you stay away from the specials (all priced about $10 more than anything else the night we were there) - these are good things. Maybe I wouldn't recommend a special trip, but keep Carpaccio in mind when you're in Annapolis anyway.

carpaccio tuscan kitchen/wine bar Address: 1 Park Place, Annapolis

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily, Sunday brunch.

Prices: Appetizers; $3.99-$17.59, entrees: $13.99-$35.99.

Contact: 410-268-6569,

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

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