Villagio Cafe has hit the ground running.
The small Persian restaurant and carryout, located on the stretch of York Road between Baltimore City and Towson, opened in December to much fanfare. It's an area that doesn't see many new sit-down restaurant openings — the former occupant of Villagio's space was a bakery-cafe — so the enthusiasm is understandable.
Too much excitement, early on, can spell disaster for a new restaurant. Fortunately, Villagio's food is great and the service, though not perfectly polished, is friendly and energetic.
Scene & Decor Villagio's space is neat and warm, with vaguely Middle Eastern artwork adorning the walls and a dozen or so tables and booths.
When we arrived, just before 7 p.m. on a chilly Tuesday, a few tables were filled with families, and more diners arrived as we ate.
Villagio Cafe is definitely courting the family business, offering a trio of "family tours" — kebab platters priced just over $20 designed to feed groups. Given the neighborhood, that's a smart move.
Service During our visit, one employee, a young and enthusiastic man, manned the entire front of the house. Villagio's mode is casual. Orders are placed at the counter but delivered directly to the table. You pay before you eat. The silverware is plastic and dishes are mostly disposable; diners clear their own tables, Panera-style.
The single waiter/cashier handled the modest crowd well, ably fielding a lot of new-restaurant questions (like "When did you open?" and "What is this white stuff?"). He knew most of the answers offhand and when he didn't, he scurried back to the kitchen and found out right away. Full of energy and obviously in love with the food, he was very likable.
Appetizers Moments after we ordered, our waiter delivered a complimentary dish of tangy yogurt dip and warm pita triangles. The dip, tinged with dill and creamy-tart, was so tasty we had to remind ourselves to slow down because we had more food coming.
That was followed by a chunky, warm dip of eggplant, tomato, onion and chicken ($4.99). The tomato was the dominant ingredient, though the other vegetables and meat gave the dip rich flavor and plenty of heft. It was, however, the tiniest bit under seasoned; a sprinkle of salt helped round out the taste.
Entrees In its tiny Styrofoam dish, our bowl of vegetable stew ($8.49) smelled great but did not look terribly impressive. The bowl seemed small; we wondered if we'd leave hungry. Looks were deceiving.
In a well-seasoned tomato-y broth, okra, onions and yellow split peas were surprisingly satisfying and filling. Scooped up with forkfuls of basmati rice, we loved every bite. (On its own, the rice could have been fluffier, but as a base for the stew, it worked.)
Villagio Cafe might be casual but there was nothing low-key about the stewed lamb shank ($14.59), served with rice mixed with garlic and herbs. The large portion of lamb was well-seasoned and cooked with care; it fell right off the bone when we touched it with a fork.
With both meals, we added Greek side salads ($0.99), which were crisp and bright, with creamy, slightly tart house dressing (the "white stuff" our waiter couldn't identify right away).
Our only real complaint with Villagio's was not with the food or service but with the disposable dishes. For carry-out, plastic and paper is fine. But for sit-down customers, the food deserves more sophisticated dishware.
Dessert Villagio Cafe's desserts are made in-house and displayed on the counter, wrapped in plastic or, as was the case of the baklava we tried ($3.79), housed in a plastic container, ready for dishing out.
The traditional dessert was sweet and flaky and not as sopping with honey as some versions. That was a good thing; we could actually taste the nuts and buttery pastry.
Drinks Villagio Cafe is vocal about its BYOB status — it's clearly stated right on the front door. There is no corkage fee and during our visit, more than one table took advantage of the option.
The food, with its warm Middle Eastern spices, lends itself to beer or a variety of wines. We wished we'd brought a bottle of Pinot Noir to pair with the lamb shank. Next time.
And given the welcoming service and appealing food, there will definitely be a next time.
Back story: Opened in December in the York Road spot that formerly housed the Stoneleigh Bakery, Villagio Cafe's expert take on Persian food is already a hit with the surrounding neighborhoods. The owner, Foad Borhani, is an Iranian immigrant who moved to Baltimore after two decades in Arizona — all of which he spent in the restaurant business.
Parking: Street parking
Signature dish: Lamb shank - served on the bone, but tender enough to fall right off - was fragrant and savory. Served with herb- and garlic-spiked basmati rice, the meat was well-seasoned and wholly satisfying.
Where: 6805 York Road, Baltimore
Contact: 410-372-2200; villagiocafe.net
Open: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday
Credit Cards: All major
Bottom line: Tasty Persian cuisine and energetic service make Villagio Cafe a welcome addition to the southern Towson area