Calle's Cucina is a place with potential.
Chef-owner Carl "Calle" Vahl has the experience to run a show-stopping restaurant, with both formal and on-the-job training in Italy and New York. Philosophically, Vahl is in the right place, too. He uses fresh, local ingredients to create authentic Italian dishes and is committed to becoming an integral part of the Charles Village community. All great things.
Unfortunately, both the food and the atmosphere at Calle's Cucina need some tweaking, and it's not completely clear where the restaurant falls on the casual-to-fine-dining scale.
On a rainy Wednesday evening, the chef greeted us at the door, and we were led into an empty dining room, which remained quiet and sparsely populated over the next few hours (the space was formerly the Yabba Pot). The tables in the dining room are covered with white linens and topped with candles and fresh flowers — all lovely — and the walls are covered with vibrant works by local artist Danielle Chi (the featured artist will change periodically).
But to get to the dining room, guests walk through an overly bright entrance with display cases in front of the open kitchen, and in the dining room itself, exposed cords cover a ceiling of unfinished drywall. In a casual restaurant, we might not have noticed the bright lights or the ceiling, but next to the neatly dressed tables, those blips were jarring.
The menu, which changes weekly, is definitely more fine dining than casual. It is interesting but brief, with a handful of meat and seafood options, plus several pastas, with an emphasis on authentic Italian. The odd Swedish dish is thrown in as a nod to Vahl's heritage.
The menu also offers several wine pairing suggestions. Calle's Cucina is BYOB, with no immediate plans to start serving alcohol. The restaurant does, however, have an agreement with Charles Village Discount Liquors, located across the street, which sells wines specifically chosen to pair with the restaurant's menu, at a 10 percent discount to Calle's Cucina customers.
Right away, our waiter brought us a plate of olives alongside toasted bread with tangy spreadable cheese, whetting our appetites and setting high expectations as we ordered the artichoke scallop ($7.50) and spicy polpette ($7.50) appetizers. Both were good choices.
The single scallop, seared nicely, was paired with a confit of orange, raisins and slivers of artichoke. The sweet-and-sour flavor of the confit was a good match for the scallop, bringing out its sweetness. Though we wished the scallop had been seasoned more, the dish was a winner.
The spicy polpette was equally satisfying, though the name was a bit misleading — the beef and turkey meatballs, served in a red sauce over basmati rice, weren't particularly spicy. But the herbed meatballs were flavorful and cooked well, and the sauce tasted of ripe tomatoes with a savory edge. As with the scallop, though, the meatballs were slightly underseasoned.
Our waiter was well-versed in the menu and helpful throughout the meal. On his recommendation, we opted for the braciola ($17.50) and the pasta a la Gorgonzola ($18.50). Both dishes came with salad — crisp mixed greens tossed with vinaigrette — and the soft, warm bread accompanying the pasta was served with creamy herb butter.
Braciola is a traditional Italian dish of meat rolled around a cheese-based stuffing. In Vahl's interpretation, flank steak was stuffed with cheese, prosciutto, herbs, garlic and raisins, and topped with a chunky tomato sauce. Each bite was packed with a variety of flavors, from salty to sweet to acidic, though more stuffing would have made the dish better. Basmati rice was served on the side, and a colorful tangle of caramelized root vegetables, including incredibly sweet carrots, was a top-notch addition.
Though we had high hopes for the pasta a la Gorgonzola, it turned out to be the low point of the meal. Rigatoni, which tasted store-bought, was topped with a cheese sauce that just wasn't creamy enough, leaving the pasta dry and sticky, and allowing the bitter edge of the Gorgonzola to take over.
Dinner ended on a high note, though. Calle's Cucina offers a few desserts, some made in house and some provided by Fells Point's Cafe Einstein. Our panna cotto ($7.50), one of the house-made selections, arrived warm and silky, with a thin layer of slightly tart cherry sauce balancing the sweetness — and richness — of the cooked cream underneath.
With an eye on becoming a go-to spot for good Italian food in the community, Vahl is reaching out to his Charles Village neighbors. But the question remains: Just how upscale a community restaurant does Calle's Cucina hope to be?
The food at Calle's Cucina is fine-dining material in concept and — when it works — in execution. The service also has what it takes to operate at that level, but the restaurant's atmosphere is confused at best. Vahl's pedigree and his philosophy shine through in little details, like the expertly cooked scallop or the inspired root vegetables.
Perhaps with time, and with a coherent vision for the restaurant, Vahl will build on those details so Calle's Cucina can fulfill all its potential.
Back story: Calle's Cucina is a new BYOB addition to Charles Village, where it hopes to become a community mainstay, serving authentic Italian food and seasonal seafood specials
Parking: Street parking is available nearby.
Signature dish: Go for traditional Italian specialties, like the braciola, flank steak was stuffed with cheese, prosciutto, herbs, garlic and raisins, and topped with a chunky tomato sauce.
Where: 2431-2433 St. Paul St., Baltimore
Contact: 410-235-0128, callescucina.com
Open: Lunch and snacks: 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; brunch: 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday; dinner: 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday
Credit Cards: All major
[Key: Excellent: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]