It must count among the fastest makeovers in the business. Foreman Wolf Restaurant Group closed its Petit Louis Bistro in Columbia the first weekend in February and transformed it into the Rome-inspired trattoria Lupa in less than four weeks.
More impressive than the physical transformation — the interior exudes an inviting warmth from earthy tones and iron fixtures — is how well Lupa (“she-wolf” in Italian) already hums along at a smooth clip.
Sure, you expect this sort of professionalism from the team of Cindy Wolf and Tony Foreman, who are responsible for Charleston, Cinghiale, the original Petit Louis in Roland Park and others. But nothing is ever a sure bet in the dining game.
Having experienced some major letdowns at Cinghiale over the years, I was skeptical that another Italian venture from this company would hit the mark right off. That’s just what Lupa has done. There’s enough casualness in the air to put you at ease upon arrival, more than enough sophistication in the food to make you feel you are dining out in style.
That style asserts itself from the start with smartly made cocktails and an erudite, Italian-dominated wine list. That several dozen bottles are priced under $50 is no small thing in an age when restaurants often seem to take an anything-you-can-inflate-I-can-inflate-higher approach.
Our server, who deftly blended informality and polished efficiency, helped us navigate the menu and ensured that extra dishes materialized seamlessly throughout the evening — food at Lupa is meant to be shared.
I wanted to hoard the first of the antipasti we sampled, light-as-a-cloud suppli al telefono — balls of fried risotto filled with house-made mozzarella and lemon-garlic mayonnaise. (For your homework, Google your way to the origin of the dish’s name. It’s a fun one.)
The fava bean and farro soup was genially seasoned with herbs. A black Tuscan kale salad — you can’t go very far these days without bumping into kale on a menu — asserted its character with the help of roasted beets, walnuts, olives and more.
The star of our first-course choices was the anolini di pollo, exquisitely textured pasta formed into a hat shape and filled with roasted chicken and cheese, perfectly complemented by a gentle sage butter sauce.
If, like me, you consider a simple dish of pasta with fresh tomato sauce one of life’s finer pleasures, Lupa’s spaghetti alla chitarra (the name comes from a pasta-making device resembling a guitar) will confirm your value system. The kitchen treated this traditional preparation from Italy’s Abruzzo region with great respect.
The same care, alas, was not lavished on the bucatini all’amatriciana, which arrived so overcooked it turned the pasta into paste. A taste revealed the strength of spices in the sauce, but that was small consolation. (The item was quickly removed from the table, and the bill.)
Our entrees included a tender, flavorful lamb leg steak that gained vibrant support from rapini and tiny roasted potatoes. A New York strip proved less notable, but satisfied. We tried eggplant fries as an accompaniment with it; they were interesting for one or two soggy bites.
Pan-roasted cod tasted rather bland, but got a bump from potatoes, fava beans and sun-dried tomato in a red wine reduction. The much more flavorful pan-seared branzino was complemented by wonderful pieces of roasted fennel, a pesto with fennel pollen, and a carrot puree.
Sterling desserts included an elegant crostata with blackberry jam and candied orange peel. The affogato arrived with a punchy shot of espresso to pour over hazelnut gelato.
Speaking of gelato, which is made in-house, there’s a gelateria at Lupa, a separate parlor where customers can focus on the frozen Italian treat, available in nearly 20 flavors. (I can vouch for the zest of the chocolate and amaretto.)
I should mention that pizzas are available, too, and the ones we saw heading to other tables looked very tempting. Maybe next time. And Lupa is the kind of restaurant that makes you want to return.
Rating: 4 stars
Where: 10215 Wincopin Circle, Columbia
Contact: 410-964-9999, lupacolumbia.com
Hours: Dinner 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday. Brunch 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers $9 to $28, entrees $23 to $28
Food: Italian, with an emphasis on cuisine associated with Rome.
Noise/TVs: A tolerable buzz when full. No TVs, to which I say “grazie.”
Service: Attentive, informative, affable.
Parking: Surface lots and garages.
Special diets: They can be accommodated.
Handicap accessible: Yes
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]