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Restaurant Review: Sammy's Trattoria has moments of competent charm

Sammy's Trattoria opened five years ago in a Mount Vernon space that was widely considered a jinx. Tampico and Limoges opened and closed with impressive speed before Sammy's moved in with a modest and appealing menu of Italian favorites.

The restaurant's owner is Sam Curreri, a longtime manager of Little Italy's Chiapparelli's, and what I found so effective then about Sammy's Trattoria was its clever repackaging of basic Italian-American fare like veal parmigiana and shrimp scampi. Notably, this approach consisted of serving decent food on the kind of square plates associated with upscale bistros, and Sammy's followed through with adept service and a careful attention to detail. It may have been mediocre, but it was charming. And it worked.

Five years later, there are worrisome signs that Sammy's has gone slack. At least, it looked that way on a recent visit, when there were pervasive problems with presentation and service. The essential flavor and quality of the food prepared by Sammy's kitchen hadn't deteriorated, but appetizers and entrees were plated and served with what came across as indifference.

For example, Sammy's serves its fried calamari appetizer with strips of fried eggplant and peppers. The menu doesn't say so, and because all of the ingredients look monotonous on the plate, this comes as a weird surprise. The flavors aren't bad, though — maybe too assertively salty, but the squid is cooked properly and an accompanying marinara sauce is thick and zesty. But what really riveted my attention were the two thick lemon slices placed on the dish. Slices? Aren't lemons usually wedged for diners?

I never did shake off those lemon slices. I was reminded of them often throughout our meal at Sammy's. There were times when, as with the calamari, otherwise good flavors were sabotaged by presentation. This includes the cavalier way the whole clams, several of them empty, were thrown onto a bowl of linguine with clam sauce, an undermining of the sauce's merits.

A entree listed as Judge K's Veal Dish also makes an unappetizing impression: a discouraging brown pile of veal and mushrooms and tomato-basil sauce. Again, this was too bad, because the veal, once you gave in and ate it, was tender and tasty, and the sauce, which looked so muddy on the plate, brightened on the tongue.

A fillet of beef was another victim of both menu misdirection and ineffective presentation; the promised peppercorn crust was nonexistent and the Gorgonzola sauce topping the fillet was a watery gray. This was a particular shame because the beef was so robustly flavorful.

Elsewhere, taste and flavor did suffer. The cream sauce in a shrimp scampi betrayed not a whiff of the roasted garlic the menu says it was made with. The shrimp tasted as though they were last-second introductions to the dish. (Nor were the shrimp butterflied, as described on the menu). A seafood bruschetta appetizer was disappointing, too, with toast made soggy from its topping of chopped tomatoes, capers and olive oil. We saw bits of shrimp mixed into the topping, but any lump crab meat that had been added amounted to nothing.

Aunt Julia's Crab Toast is just bland crab dip on toast. It was recommended by our server, with whom we never quite connected. We dined late at Sammy's on a Saturday, and I believe we were the last diners to arrive, more than 90 minutes before the kitchen's closing. On this night, at least, Sammy's was making do without a host or a bartender, and maybe that's why the serving staff seemed so disengaged.

What made Sammy's run so badly this night? There was, on this evening, no one at Sammy's with a proprietary view. Just as no one in the kitchen was scrutinizing dishes before they were brought to the table, no one on the floor was making sure a server didn't remove dirty plates by stacking them over the table or serve a shared dessert without bringing out individual dessert plates.

That shared dessert was a final bit of weirdness. Plating a raspberry chocolate cake with tiramisu is fine, but drizzling a raspberry sauce over both of them is bizarre. The cake, by the way, was not only the best thing we had at Sammy's all evening, but it's also one of the most gloriously rich chocolate desserts in town. The tiramisu, though, was the insipid kind, all cream and no flavor.

We had fun at Sammy's Trattoria; things were so off that we ended up reveling in its eccentricities. Maybe people come for fun — Sammy's is the "home" of the Johns Hopkins lacrosse team, which helps explain why it feels less like an uplifting bistro and more like a sports bar nowadays. The dining room was full when we arrived, and at least one big party of regulars was having a great time, if braying indicates fun.

richard.gorelick@baltsun.com

Sammy's Trattoria

Where: 1200 N. Charles St., Mount Vernon

Contact: 410-837-9999, sammystrattoria.com

Hours: Open for dinner daily and for lunch Tue.-Fri.

Prices: Appetizers, $8.99-$10.99 Entrees, $17.99-$28.99

Food:✭✭

Service: ✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭

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

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