Restaurant review

In Tuscany-Canterbury, La Famiglia is a quiet success

Meet La Famiglia, the quiet restaurant in Tuscany-Canterbury

Baltimoreans have nostalgic affection for old apartment building eateries. The few that remain are located along University Parkway in Tuscany-Canterbury, like the one inside the Broadview on 39th Street near University Parkway.

Built in 1951, the Broadview has always housed a restaurant in its windowless ground-floor space. The original operated simply as the Broadview and served old-fashioned Maryland food, mostly to the building's residents. There was a fallow period in the 1970s and early 1980s. From 1988 to 2005, the restaurant space flourished as Jeannier's, and the Broadview had a truly devoted following for the classic French food of chef Roland Jeannier.

And then came the popular Brasserie Tatin, which was owned by Gerard Billebault. In December 2008, Billebault sold Tatin to his general manager, Dino Zeytinoglu — formerly of Boccaccio — who did some interior renovations and reopened the space a few months later as a Northern Italian restaurant named La Famiglia.

From the start, La Famiglia has reflected the courtly personality of its owner, whose old-school notions about running a restaurant begin and end with making customers happy.

When we visited recently, the front lounge and dining room were glowing with holiday decorations, which gave La Famiglia a particularly homey feel. Its contemporary decor, dominated by rust- and gold-hued fabrics, has aged well. The rooms aren't showy, but they're comfortable and human in scale.

La Famiglia was presenting a freshly revised menu. It is not a radical departure from the old one. The biggest change is the addition of smaller portions for the pasta dishes, something Zeytinoglu told us he added because his customers had been asking for it.

There are a handful of new entrees and a few new appetizers, which the waiter who served our meal, a pro, was eager for us to try. We ordered all of those, supplementing them here and there with a few older menu items. The focus at La Famiglia remains firmly on classic Northern Italian favorites like veal scaloppine and chicken cacciatore.

The new items show La Famiglia mixing things up a little while keeping ideas as simple as possible. Menu descriptions don't get much more basic than those for new entrees like the Grilled Seafood Trio ("Grilled whole calamari, scallops and shrimp in a brown butter sauce") or the Scallops & Asparagus ("Sauteed scallops and asparagus in a beurre blanc sauce").

At its best, the food is carried along by excellent sauces.

It was the rich and velvety beurre blanc that made both the blackened seafood appetizer and the scallops entree such satisfying choices. I loved how well La Famiglia's surprisingly peppery brown butter sauce complemented the grilled seafood without overwhelming the delicate flavors. And the fresh-tasting and spicy cocktail sauce was what made another new appetizer, a classic shrimp cocktail, worth ordering.

An appetizer of gamberi saltati, which are shrimp in garlic butter, is another good choice, but there should be more, and more varied, appetizer options: Six of the seven choices are seafood, and three of those are shrimp.

The pasta dishes we tried were disappointing. The noodles were overcooked in both a pasta primavera and a new pasta dish, the penne al granchio, which was pasta with marinara and crab meat. We didn't get much crab flavor from that dish.

But mostly the simple approach works. The food is prepared and presented well, in portions that are neither so small that they seem like delicate spa food or so big that they make you uncomfortable.

The wine list is easy to understand, and our waiter all but told us we'd be nuts not to get the $10 wine special. We got it.

Dessert is simple too, and a little boring: things like tiramisu, a chocolate mousse cake that our waiter acknowledged was very sweet, and, probably your best choice, a good, light zabaglione with berries.

I reviewed La Famiglia in 2009 shortly after it opened and had been back exactly once, and that was at the insistence of a faithful reader who wanted me to know how special La Famiglia was. Apart from that, I'd rarely heard anyone mention La Famiglia in the past five years. The restaurant had been going about its business of developing and nurturing a loyal clientele, and doing it quietly.

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La Famiglia

Rating: 3.5

Where: 105 W. 39th St., Tuscany-Canterbury

Contact: 443-449-5555, lafamigliabaltimore.com

Open: Sunday and Monday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m..; Tuesday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Prices: Appetizers $10.75 to $12.95 , entrees $15.95 to $28.50

Food: Northern Italian with a focus on seafood

Service: Opinionated and professional, with good advice about specials and wine

Parking: The restaurant offers free parking in its lot across the street. It also offers complimentary valet parking.

Children: There is a small children's menu with things like chicken tenders, pasta marinara, and macaroni and cheese, but most children will be fine with the grown-up menu.

Special diets: Gluten-free pasta is available upon request.

Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is very easy in the main dining room. There are two TVs in the lounge with their volume turned off.

[Key: Superlative: 5; Excellent: 4; Very Good: 3; Good: 2 ; Promising: 1]

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