Restaurant review: Liberatore's of Eldersburg is full of personality

Dante Liberatore works a room in a way that few restaurateurs care to, or dare to, these days. We saw him compel a sour patron to concede that her wait for a table had been exactly as long as he said it would be. She wasn't thrilled, but her husband was. Later we heard him tell a diner at a nearby table that if she still didn't like a pasta dish the kitchen remade for her, he would eat it himself. She didn't like it, and he ate it. That's part of the fun at Liberatore's of Eldersburg.

At last count, there were five Liberatore's restaurants, each one with its own personality. Liberatore's in Eldersburg has an atmosphere I'd describe as friendly, neighborly and very upbeat. It's exactly the personality of Dante Liberatore, so much so that it's hard to imagine the restaurant operating, or even existing, without him.

The Liberatore's restaurants have overlapping but not identical menus. The Timonium restaurant has a few high-end items that aren't on the menu in Eldersburg, where the prices can be lower for identical menu items. The Eldersburg location caters to a casual, seven-night-a-week crowd, most of them residents of the surrounding communities who know to support a good thing when they see it.

The main dining room feels formal enough for semi-important family occasions, like a 52nd birthday or an 11th anniversary, but it's far from stuffy. The bar area, which includes seating for about 20 additional diners, has its own crowd of regulars. The diners appear to be on first-name-friendly terms with the wait staff, who have benefited from having Dante Liberatore as a role model. Folks will come back to you, they have learned, if they feel valued.

Entrees are divided into veal, chicken, seafood and grilled meat sections. These dishes are plated with vegetables; a simple pasta is served on the side, but for a few dollars more you can choose a side-dish version from the section of entree-size pasta dishes. Dante Liberatore himself recommended the tortellacchi pizzaioli, a house specialty. Good thinking.

Tortellacchi are giant-size tortellini, stuffed with veal and beef, that the kitchen then simmers in chunky, aromatic tomato sauce. I could see wanting this on a weekly basis; it's the kind of dish you could make a meal of with a glass of wine and a small salad.

I bet diners order the Tuscan antipasto board again and again. It's a smartly assembled selection of good-looking meats like soprasetta and chorizo and cheeses like asiago and parmigiano-reggiano, along with olives, warm, crusty bread and, best of all, roasted garlic cloves to spread on top of everything.

The rustichella, our server, told us, is popular here. Something like a bruschetta appetizer — although there's one of those, too — this is a slice of bread piled high with goat cheese, tomatoes, onions, olives and mozzarella. Granted, it looks pretty, but I wouldn't order it again. It's cumbersome to eat, and filling without being really interesting. Rustichella and tortellacchi, by the way, are the spellings Liberatore's uses, I think as a way of getting customers to pronounce them correctly.

I wouldn't order the grilled calamari again. The squid itself was a borderline concern. A little toughness or chewiness is fine, but this squid needed more springiness, too. Unexpectedly, it was the accompanying marinara that was the real problem: It was thin and tinny-tasting.

A veal saltimbocca entree was sturdy and professional but short of dazzling. The veal was cooked well and tender, but the sauce tasted too much of lemon and not enough of wine, and prosciutto, the thing people order saltimbocca for, was a negligible presence. An accompanying side of linguine with clam sauce was underseasoned and watery, a disappointment.

The frutta di mare, mussels, clams, calamari and shrimp served over linguine, makes an eye-popping appearance. The seafood is fresh and clean, the linguine is pleasantly al dente and the marinara sauce tastes better. But it's too much of a good thing — too many mussels and clams blocking the way to the sauce and the pasta, which makes eating it a chore and, eventually, a bit of a bore.

Desserts, presented on a dessert tray, are made in house. Some of them are made by a Liberatore's server named Nancy, who has a following. We had a chocolate cake topped with bits of chocolate candies that made our teeth ache pleasantly.

I see why Liberatore's has earned return customers. Are the diners also coming back for the food? I think that they are, but I think, too, that they've found their favorite dishes over time. There's a message on the bottom of the menu that says, "Most of your favorites are available upon request."

That says a lot about how Liberatore's values its customers, and how important the human touch is to a restaurant's appeal. It's one thing to know this; it's another to put it into practice every day, like Dante Liberatore does.

Liberatore's of Eldersburg

Where: 6300 Georgetown Blvd., Eldersburg

Contact: 410-781-4114 ,

Hours: Open for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch

Prices: Appetizers, $8.95-$11.95; entrees, $13.95-$27.95

Food: ✭✭1/2

Service: ✭✭✭ 1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭

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

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