12:05 p.m. We arrive at Liberatore's in Timonium and, as I suspected, I feel underdressed. We're met by men in black bowties. I'd feel better if I were wearing a tie or at least a jacket.
White linen, short-stemmed water glasses, and a few tables of guests dressed like adults, and my business-emphasis-on-casual attire makes me feel like I should be making deliveries in the back.
My first experience of Liberatore's was its Eldersburg location several years ago. I thought it competent, but my dinner companion disliked the food and experience altogether, though details about why remain sketchy. Since then, I've heard two types of reactions, either rave or shrug — no middle ground. More often, I hear raves, which prompted me to put Liberatore's back on my must-visit list.
Our waiter came straight away and took drink orders. He was either endearingly shy or he was embarrassed to be serving a table of castaways. I ordered tea. My lunch companions stuck with water. I mention that because, while the house was making nothing off the water, the glasses were attended to as astutely as if they cost us 5 bucks a refill. No fewer than three servers worked our table through the course of our meal.
12:23 p.m. Fried calamari arrived. Two of us immediately noted its saltiness. But after a couple pieces, it didn't seem as noticeable. Calamari can be the canary in the coal mine for a restaurant. If it's overcooked, tough, chewy, I brace myself for a mediocre meal. If the kitchen gets the squid right, I take that as a good sign. Our calamari was nicely done, lightly breaded and seasoned and not a bit squeaky. At $9, it jacks up the lunch bill, but there was enough here to serve four. As it was, the three of us left a couple pieces uneaten.
For timekeepers, we didn't order our entrees till the appetizer arrived, so cut Liberatore's a few minutes slack on the overall time it took from entry to payoff. Or cut the appetizer altogether and figure to save 10 or 15 minutes. Still, this is a restaurant I'd like to take my time in — if I were dressed for it. The menu makes it easy to stay beneath $10 each for lunch, but even easier to splurge on something from the specialties menu.
12:42 p.m. Our meals arrive. I ordered the saltimbocca chicken sandwich, my companions ordered the penne Romano and, my favorite of the three, orecchetti al formaggio: sausage, cupped pasta, mushrooms, Fontina, tomatoes and white truffle oil combined well for a multilayered savory treat. The penne Romano is a good, hearty dish with chicken, spinach, garlic and parmigiana, but the bacon is what sold my friend on the order. It seals the deal well.
My saltimbocca, on a light, flaky-crusted roll and served with parmigiana fries, was exactly what I'd envisioned. The prosciutto ennobled the chicken. OK, maybe that's over the top. But the combination really transforms the classic grilled chicken sandwich. My only complaint is that the whole was a bit dry. I wanted a touch more sage mayo — though they did offer plum tomato disks and lettuce that might have juiced it up a bit had I cared to add them.
12:56 p.m. We finish. We're happy. The two pasta dishes came in at $11 and my sandwich at $9. We all have enough left over to ask for boxes, and we pronounce our lunch a bargain.
1:05 p.m. Exactly one hour after we enter, we've paid and prepare to exit. Had we a little more time, we would have checked out the dessert menu and coffee. Despite the formal faces of table and server, Liberatore's offers a relaxed Mediterranean feel that tempts to lingering. I suspect it would be no great trick to get in and out in 45 minutes, but I'd prefer to visit when I have enough time to sample a wider range of offerings.
The star ratings should all come with plus signs and I might have given Liberatore's a 4 rating for ambience … if they had refused to seat me.
Liberatore's in Timonium
Where: 9515 Deereco Road
Hours: Open Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 3 p.m. to 9 p.m.
[Key: ✭✭✭✭: Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor]
Dining time 60 minutes