Fells Point is known for a lot of things — cobblestone streets, fun bars, seafood — but Italian fare is not among them. Anastasia, the newest offering from Kali's Restaurant Group, could change that.
The restaurant, which opened in January in the Thames Street space vacated by Meli (also a Kali's Group venture), bills itself as an "Italian bistro" and also as an upscale nightclub. Those two identities don't fit together perfectly, but as a restaurant, Anastasia gets the important stuff — the food and service — just right.
Scene & Decor Anastasia is named after Kali's owner Vasilis Keramidas' oldest daughter; the name is also a nod to St. Anastasia, who was martyred in the early days of Roman Christianity.
The space doesn't convey any of that history, however, and also doesn't scream "Italian bistro." Instead, the decor conveys a glossier and — we have to admit — cheesier version of the Italian dream. A Ferrari-designed motorcycle sits in the front window; inside, walls are covered with floor-to-ceiling photos of cars, motorcycles and Italian actors. Up close, even gorgeous Sophia Loren seemed odd on that scale.
The set-up, though, was a good one, especially for a place with an eye on late-night diners, with a large central bar surrounded by small, cafe-height tables.
During our Thursday-night visit, a mix of couples and small groups of friends occupied those seats, while a musician provided spacey background music. Downstairs, a large room and another bar were empty but seemed waiting for a crowd.
Appetizers The Bruschetta Anastasia ($7), a sampler platter including crispy crostini with four different toppings (two pieces each), was a good introduction to the kitchen's thoughtful approach to flavor — and also very pretty.
The toppings used a handful of traditional ingredients — tomato, garlic, olive oil, basil — but in different configurations. On one, a smear of roasted, mashed garlic was potent and sweet. Another topped fresh pesto with a squiggle of roasted red pepper. The traditional version, with fresh tomato, was fragrant with garlic, and our favorite, a garlicky roasted tomato spread, was tangy and powerful.
Entrees Anastasia's menu includes casual Italian dishes, like pizza, pasta and panini. Since our visit, they have also added a paleo-friendly menu, focusing on proteins and vegetables. We stuck with carb-laden classics.
Pizza Florentine ($12), white pizza topped with fresh spinach, was surprisingly large and heavy with cheese. Loving the pizza's crispy crust and garlicky flavor, we couldn't help picking at it long after we were full.
On the recommendation of our waitress, we ordered the Lupara Rigatoni ($13). It was a good call. The pasta came covered in shaved Pecorino and tossed with spicy sausage, porcini mushrooms and a tomato cream sauce that was well seasoned and positively silky. It wasn't a complicated dish, but each element was thoughtful and well prepared — a total win.
Drinks Anastasia's signature cocktail ($12), a vodka and blood orange juice concoction, was nicely balanced and just sweet enough. But we were more impressed with the Italian focus of the wine and beer lists.
We enjoyed a glass of Bricco al Sole Montepulciano ($9) but kept coming back to the Melini Sangiovese ($9), a smooth wine with enough heft and fruit to pair well with our meals.
Service Anastasia wasn't packed during our visit, but it was busy enough that we were surprised that just one waitress handled all the tables at once (she was also doubling as a hostess).
Fortunately, she did a great job with all her responsibilities — seating newcomers, keeping our glasses filled and making smart recommendations throughout the evening. The only glitch occurred when we ordered a final glass of wine — and thanks to our vantage point, we could see that the timing wasn't her fault.
After the waitress put in the order, the bartender dragged his feet for several minutes. Finally, our waitress corned him and asked him to pour the wine. Problem solved.
Dessert We finished our meal with a cannoli ($6.95), which was not quite as sweet as some versions we've tried, but tasty nonetheless.
With our dessert, we finished that final glass of Sangiovese and watched new guests trickle in for tables and — more frequently — the bar. It looked like a fun night was heating up at Anastasia. And a delicious one, too.
Back story: In the Fells Point space formerly occupied by Meli American Bistro, Kali's Restaurant Group opened Anastasia, an Italian bistro (and nightclub) with a succinct and successful menu of bar-friendly pizzas and pastas.
Parking: Street parking
Signature dish: Rigatoni tossed with porcini mushrooms and spicy sausage, in a well-seasoned and subtle tomato cream sauce, is hearty without being overly filling.
Where: 1636 Thames St., Fells Point
Contact: 410-534-6666; anastasiabaltimore.com
Open: 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily (kitchen closes at midnight)
Credit Cards: All major
Bottom line: Well-executed pizzas and pastas in a space decorated with modern Italian icons.