Restaurant review: Caesar's Den continues to do the standards well

Caesar's Den feels like the old Little Italy. The owners live upstairs, just as at other restaurants. The main dining room is cozy and comfortable, tables are set with white cloths and the serving staff is dressed in semiformal attire: white shirts and black pants.

It's a modest place, the prices are moderate and if you were to run into a couple of tourists on the street who told you they were headed for dinner at Caesar's Den, your response ought to be: "Well, that's fine. They'll take good care of you there."

The last time The Baltimore Sun reviewed Caesar's Den was in 2000, when Elizabeth Large visited in the dead of summer. Changing a few seasonal details, I could have copied-and-pasted her entire review in here, and no one would have suspected a thing. Even 10 years ago, Caesar's Den was an old-fashioned place: "Some Little Italy restaurants do still have the attentive service and homey, old-fashioned atmosphere you may remember from years ago. Such an establishment is Caesar's Den."

The current owners of Caesar's Den are Tina and Guido De Franco. Tina De Franco's father, Anthony "Nino" Cricchio, and her uncle, Domenico "Mimmo" Cricchio, opened Caesar's Den back in 1970. Years later, Mimmo Cricchio would leave to open his own restaurant, Da Mimmo, on the same block.

At its best, Caesar's Den impresses you with simple and thoughtful gestures, like the straightforward Italian-import wine list, helpfully divided up into simple light and robust categories, or the basket of very soft Italian bread the waiter brings to your table. A winning house salad comes along with most entree choices, and it's freshly coated with a creamy garlic dressing.

In keeping with its modest ambience, the menu at Caesar's Den is reticent about its offerings, with few outstanding claims made about the things other restaurants brag about, things like homemade pastas and stocks. (There are no claims at all about sourcing and seasonality.) But because everything on the menu is weighted equally, it can make uncovering gems, or the kitchen's strengths, a bit tricky.

The house specialties are big-ticket meat dishes like osso buco Milanese and the 20-ounce veal chop. Antipasti include standards like prosciutto and melon, bruschetta and marinated peppers, but also a few outliers like an eggplant Neapolitan and hot mozzarella with anchovy sauce. The balance of the menu breaks down into basic groupings of surf and turf, a collection mostly of familiar favorites like veal saltimbocca and shrimp scampi. There are pastas, too, but few of them come equipped with meat or seafood, and they're priced a little too high (about $15) to think about ordering one of them as a separate course

I remembered, and ordered again, a dish I had last time I was here, a very satisfying entree called the Pollo Vesuvio. Not seen very often on Baltimore menus, this is a sauteed dish (usually finished in a very hot oven) of bone-in chicken pieces with sausage, potatoes, garlic and wine. Still one of the best dishes you'll find in Little Italy, it's a rustic affair, a very simple accumulation of seared-in flavor. The portion is ridiculously generous, and the flavors are deep and roasted-in. It's the kind of fare we flatter by calling "peasant food."

The veal Milanese was impressive, too, a classic and very appealing plating of tender meat bathed with fully rounded wine flavor. Served with pretty sauteed vegetables, this dish looks and tastes like it's being made the same careful, no-nonsense way it was when the Cricchios first opened their doors. An appetizer of clams simmered in white wine and garlic satisfies with clean, buttery flavors. The menu's default option for this dish is red sauce; it took almost no prodding for our waiter to offer this version. The fried calamari struck me as being overly plain — and I'm not convinced they had been fried freshly for us — but they're tender, and an accompanying tomato sauce is chunky and zesty.

Not everything comes across so well. A grilled polenta appetizer, topped with wild mushrooms, is a limp affair. The polenta needs more frying, and the sauce more brightness or herbing, or both. But in particular it was the two dishes that were recommended to us that failed to ignite. The spinach fettuccine tossed with shreds of ham, onions and fresh tomatoes is toothless and mostly dull. One of the evening's specials, a seafood pasta, was a big bowl of sameness, one bite very much like the next. I wonder if our waiter was erring on the side of caution — bland food might be just the kind of thing that's safe to sell to tourists.

Dessert here plays it too safe, too — homemade tiramisu, cheesecake and, from nearby Vaccaro's, chocolate-chip cannoli, which was the only thing any of us wanted. It was full of good, fat flavor, a rich indulgence.

When we visited, the dining room was lively with folks on their way to see "Jersey Boys" at the Hippodrome. In her review, Elizabeth Large also wrote, "Caesar's Den, like many Little Italy restaurants, offers something intangible beyond getting a meal on the table. For want of a better phrase, I'll call it a good time." That's still true.

Caesar's Den

Where: 223 S. High St., Little Italy

Contact: 410-752-2530,

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $5.50-$10.50 Entrees, $15.50-$36

Food: ✭✭1/2

Service: ✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭1/2

[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good:✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven:✭✭; Poor:✭]

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