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Cafe Troia expands menu to match larger restaurant space

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Cafe Troia has always been something of an anomaly in Towson, a white-tablecloth restaurant that has managed to survive, even flourish, for 23 years.

These are scary times to deviate from the "if it ain't broke" dictum, but when their landlord decided to raise the rent, Carol Troia and her daughter Lisa Troia Martin, who own the restaurant, solved the problem by moving across the street to larger quarters.

I happened to love the old space, which some thought cramped; but I was happy to have an excuse to eat at Cafe Troia again. The new digs weren't the only change; the menu was expanded to include more Italian dishes and more steaks and chops. This was made possible by the new, larger kitchen.

There are many more tables and an ample bar, and a second dining room downstairs, where we were seated. When the weather gets better, there will be tables outdoors on a deck in back.

The colors of the new Cafe Troia are Mediterranean, like the warm terra cotta walls, but nothing screams "I'm an Italian restaurant." The lighting is soft, and the chairs and booths are comfortable. But the new space can get noisy, as we found out. (We were seated next to a large group of guys who were partying hard.)

I wondered if the place was understaffed when co-owner Lisa Troia Martin not only seated us but took our orders and served us our meal. She's a charming woman, but compared to the usual polished service I've gotten at Troia in the past, this was a disappointment. She had trouble opening the first bottle of wine, for instance, and had to get another one. She couldn't tell us which wines were available by the glass. (They aren't on the wine list, perhaps to encourage you to get a bottle. It's heavy on Italian and California bottles and contains no bargains.)

She was also unsure about the specials, didn't know what was on a mixed appetizer plate, and had to go back to the kitchen to ask about both. On the other hand, when one of the owners is your server, the food comes out in a timely fashion and the meal is well-paced.

Cafe Troia's food is classic Italian, with a few bells and whistles. The worst I can say about our meal is that the bread was stale. OK, that's pretty bad, but everything else went smoothly. I do have one "buyer beware": Ask the price of the specials before you order. One of our shared appetizers was the ravioli of the day, gorgeous al dente pasta filled with beet puree, arranged with spinach and a puff of goat cheese. Good as the dish was, the $24 price tag took me by surprise. That was "beet," not "beef."

We also shared a couple of other starters. The piatto misto is a good bet, although there isn't a great deal of it, with tissue-thin slices of aged prosciutto wrapped around a juicy-sweet slice of cantaloupe, fresh mozzarella and plum tomato slices, roasted red peppers, some goat cheese, and thin, garlicky slices of grilled eggplant and zucchini - one of each vegetable.

To this we added another appetizer plate, a special that evening, consisting of excellent small bruschetta, two with a fresh tomato and onion topping and one with tapenade. There were also little rolls of smoked salmon with capers and fresh balls of mozzarella alternating with cherry tomatoes on toothpicks. Slices of carpaccio with arugula and shaved parmigiano cheese rounded out the platter.

Osso buco is a specialty of the house, a classic version with gremolata (the garnish of minced parsley, garlic and lemon peel). The veal shank is stewed until fork-tender in red wine and tomatoes, with a tiny dice of vegetables adding depth of flavor. Troia's version comes with fat little gnocchi.

Equally fine, though, is one of the least expensive dishes on the menu, a homey pairing of spectacularly good Italian sausage with polenta, crispy at its edges but creamy soft inside. A bit of quiet marinara sauce ties them together.

The dish that most showed off the kitchen's skill, though, was the fish of the day - a perfectly cooked fillet of red snapper, moist and fresh, with a well-balanced lemon-dill sauce. This came with roast potatoes and a colorful mix of carrots and zucchini.

A little more thought could have been given to the visuals of my plate, which was a study in brown and beige. Boneless free-range chicken breasts swam in a dark, winy sauce sparked with rosemary. The flavors were intense, especially with the salty black olives scattered on top. The "Chef's Vegetable" was more of the gnocchi that came with the osso buco, while the chicken cried out for a, you know, vegetable.

Cafe Troia's desserts are less of a cliche than many Italian restaurants' selections. True, there is a tiramisu that will win you over to the classic; but you won't find the chocolate flan anywhere else around here. It's a sort of chocolate pudding for grown-ups, made with fine Belgian chocolate. If you're looking for something lighter, consider a napoleon made with layers of phyllo, lemon curd so tart it will make your tongue curl in a pleasant way, and whipped cream. Troia also has a trio of miniature desserts, worth considering if you can't decide on one.

All in all, a pleasant but expensive evening. At a time when many fine-dining restaurants are lowering their prices, Cafe Troia has raised them. I'm not saying that, for the most part, the food isn't worth the price; it's just that there are a lot of seats to fill in the new location and I don't think that's going to be easy as the recession continues.

cafe troia Address: 31 W. Allegheny Ave., Towson

Contact: 410-337-0133, www.cafetroia.com

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday, dinner only Saturday

Prices: Appetizers: $5-$12.95, entrees: $14.95-$39.50

Food: ***

Service: **

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

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