With a name that conjures up white tablecloths, lobster tanks and snooty waiters, Sapore di Mare sounds a lot fancier than it is. It's not fancy at all, and that is its greatest strength. Sapore di Mare is the kind of place you'd come to when nobody feels like cooking, but no one feels like making a big deal out of dinner either. Located on a short commercial strip in Joppa, in what used to be a High's store, it's just a little more done up inside than your average pizzeria or sub shop. Picture a square room with wooden tables. Colorful Mediterranean murals help, and so do the red and green neon strips that run along the ceiling.
We loved our waitress, who sized us up pretty quickly as outsiders, or at least newcomers. She was quick as a wink with order-taking and food-bringing, efficient but super-friendly - she made dinner seem like dinner, and it's nice to feel taken care of. The truth is, people were enjoying themselves here. A family of five near us seemed to be celebrating with a big bottle of wine. Relaxed groups of friends were at other tables.
The menu is a little more ambitious than the ambience suggests - there are pizza, subs and everyday pasta dishes like fettuccine Alfredo and stuffed shells - but Sapore di Mare also cooks up the standard Italian chicken and veal dishes. The featured dishes here combine pasta and seafood (the name of the restaurant means "taste of the sea"), things like fettuccine with salmon; linguine with shrimp, calamari and clams; and penne with crabmeat in vodka sauce.
The appetizer list runs from bruschetta and fried mozzarella to clams or mussels in marinara or white wine sauce. We tried the mussels with white wine sauce, and they weren't bad at all. The mussels themselves were maybe just a little watery, but there was ample evidence of fresh parsley and plenty of garlic in the sauce. (The dipping oil brought to the table with complimentary focaccia was super-garlicky, too.) We also ordered the calamari. I think most lovers of this appetizer like it crunchier, more fried, than the gently dusted version at Sapore di Mare. But there's something to be said for a light touch.
The favorite among the entrees was easily the lasagna. There was nothing fancy or even remarkable about it, but it passed every lasagna test we could throw at it. It was firm enough to hold together in layers when a fork was passed through it; there was the ideal balance of noodles, cheese, sauce and meat; and it was a nice big portion, too. Close behind was a pasta entree, shrimp primavera, which benefited from carefully distributed and colorful tomatoes, broccoli and mushrooms. The jumbo shrimp in here seemed fresh to us, although it was a little messy fishing them out of the mild cream sauce.
The only real problem with an otherwise admirable veal piccata was a sauce with too much of a sugary-lemon taste undermining its piquancy. We did notice how well pounded out the thin slices of veal were, and how generous the kitchen was with capers, but we didn't taste any of their sharp flavor in the sauce.
Only one dish was a dud. My friend, who lives for that gut-busting wonder fettuccine Alfredo, thought that Sapore di Mare's version was lackluster. I agreed. It definitely needed some more cheese, both for texture and saltiness. Shaking it in later is too late.
By the way, the best deal at Sapore di Mare might be its carryout. The restaurant packs up pasta dinners for four or six people. Four separately ordered spaghetti and meatball dinners taken at the table cost $37.60. A takeout spaghetti and meatball dinner for four, which comes with bread and salad, costs $26.45. This is assuming the amount of food is the same, but still, that's a big savings.
sapore di mare Where: 504 Joppa Farm Road, Joppa
Open: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; noon-10 p.m. Sunday
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, AMEX
Food: ** 1/2
Ambience: ** 1/2
Service: *** 1/2
on the menu •Fried calamari - $7.95
•Mussels in white wine sauce - $7.95
•Fettuccine Alfredo - $8.75
•Lasagna - $9.25
•Shrimp primavera - $13.25
•Veal piccata - $13.50