Fazzini's could be so much more

Special to The Baltimore Sun

Would the industrial hum of refrigeration in a dining room bother you enough to keep you from fully enjoying your evening? Maybe it's nothing you'd ever notice, and when Fazzini's is crowded with diners, you might not hear it even if you tried to.

But it was the hum from Fazzini's big takeout case and, more generally, the pervasive drabness about its storefront dining room that I think colored my appreciation of this long-popular Cockeysville restaurant.

For more than a decade, people have been coming here for very competent and reasonably priced homemade Italian dishes, and its name comes up often in discussions of restaurants you should know about that give good value. I didn't take to it.

I want to make a distinction here between places with the kind of simple or unremarkable decor that you feel comfortable in (and that seem in sync with the food) and places like Fazzini's, where the sub-shop atmosphere made me feel enervated. I described it to someone as the kind of place you see in movies where newly divorced dads take their sullen kids.

The thing is, I think the food here deserves better, the people who work here deserve better, and absolutely, the diners do. I'm not talking about a complete overhaul, just some major sprucing up - new curtains and checkered oilcloths would cheer the place up a ton. I will say that attentive service from an energetic young staff did make a positive difference.

I think my negative attitude about the environment may have led me to judge the early part of the meal too harshly. There wasn't anything very wrong about a calamari appetizer, but I wouldn't recommend it. The breading was a little underseasoned for my taste, but, really, what would have sold me on it was a sprinkling of parsley, a tossing of peppers, anything to liven it up.

Well done, buttery garlic bread is the quickest and easiest way to win me over, but Fazzini's basic garlic bread (there are versions with cheese, mushrooms and spinach) was just too plain, a little underbroiled. A friend admired his cream of crab soup more than I did. I found it too plain, too. A small house salad shows off a mild and fruity homemade vinaigrette. The small Caesar is the not-a-Caesar salad that everyone serves (not enough garlic, definitely no anchovy in the dressing) that you get everywhere.

What Fazzini's does best, I think, are simple, big-portioned and straightforward versions of traditional Italian-American cuisine. I really was tempted by the menu's pound of pasta section, which features Fazzini's homemade pastas (fettuccine, linguine, cappellini or rigatoni) with a choice of such traditional sauces as marinara, clam, tomato cream and meat. I was, though, thoroughly satisfied with the lasagna, a house specialty for good reason. In between layers of firm noodles are just the right amounts of seasoned ground beef and cheese. It tastes like something made from an old family recipe. (Besides doing what I imagine is a brisk carryout business, Fazzini's offers its appetizers and main dishes for large-party catering. That's a very good idea. )

I kind of wish we had tried the eggplant or chicken parmigiana. I think they probably would show Fazzini's to better advantage than the shrimp and chicken scampi and the chicken cacciatore. I thought the scampi, like the garlic bread and Caesar salad, was way too shy with garlic, and the cacciatore seemed like too much of a compromise: too many green peppers, not enough oomph. (I didn't notice that on the menu the cacciatore was made with white-meat chicken, but the obsession with white meat is the worst thing that ever happened to good food, not to mention chickens.)

I know I'm being a little hard on Fazzini's, but I was expecting more from it, and I think it can be so much more.

On the menu •Fried calamari: $7.59

•Small Caesar salad: $2.99

•Small tossed salad: $2.99

•Cream of crab soup: $3.99

•Baked lasagna: $11.50

•Chicken cacciatore: $13.89

•Shrimp and chicken scampi: $15.29

Fazzini's Italian Kitchen Where: 578 Cranbrook Road, Cockeysville

Call: 410-667-6104

Open: 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays and 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Appetizers/sides: $2.99-$6.89

Entrees: $8.99-$16.49

Credit cards: VISA, Master Card, AMEX

Alcohol: BYOB

Food: * * 1/2

Service: * * *

Atmosphere: * *

[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]

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