Restaurant review

La Scala's Italian comfort food offers a welcome throwback

For The Baltimore Sun
Be prepared to embrace butter and olive oil at this Little Italy stalwart.

La Scala Ristorante Italiano may not be the oldest restaurant in Little Italy, but after 21 years, it has become one of the stalwarts.

While it's old-fashioned — in the best sense of the word — it's not static. Chef-owner Nino Germano started the restaurant in 1995 on High Street and moved the business around the corner to Eastern Avenue when he outgrew the original space.

Over the years, he has added an indoor bocce court — which saw a lot of action during our visit — and an outdoor terrace. And he tweaks the food specials to keep up with the seasons.

But the menu, thankfully, has the Italian favorites you may be craving, from a hearty penne with ragu sauce to a wonderful garlic-imbued shrimp scampi. Germano's mother even makes the restaurant's cannoli.

Wines are suited to the room, with dozens of bottles from various regions of Italy. But La Scala doesn't ignore other countries, offering a global selection.

The decor leans toward a different era with wrought-iron railings, brick walls and photos of family and friends crowding the walls. The wait staff in the white-cloth dining room present a touch of formality in their royal-blue jackets.

We appreciated our waiter's subtle wit and decorum. He was efficient and relaxed in the way someone who has been on the job for 19 years would be.

He started us off with what might be called an amuse-bouche in fancier places. The rustic dish of green beans and roasted potatoes was enough to remind our stomachs it was time to eat.

This is a place where you have to embrace butter and olive oil. And why not?

We began satisfactorily with chunky mushrooms, cloaked with oozy mozzarella. They had been sauteed in olive oil and were redolent with garlic, basil and rosemary.

We also liked the baked artichoke hearts, fanned out on a plate like the spokes of wheel. They were buttery and indulgent with jumbo lump crab meat and capers the size of peas.

Another appetizer, a pile of lightly crunchy calamari, was terrific in its simplicity. All the rings and tentacles needed was a splash in the accompanying marinara sauce.

Our entrees were the kind of dishes you can count on in Little Italy — familiar and filling. The slow-cooked beef Bolognese reveled in a rich tomato cream sauce tossed with fresh spinach fettuccine.

The chicken Marsala boasted two juicy breast fillets in a balanced sweet-wine sauce with lots of mushrooms. It came with a bowl of rigatoni and marinara on the side, as did the veal piccata. That dish's tender scaloppini were nestled in a velvety lemon-white wine sauce dotted with capers.

The shrimp fra diavolo ("brother devil") lived up to its spicy name with just enough heat in the tomato sauce to gently tingle our tongues. The seafood suited the dish's thick sauce and delicate angel-hair pasta.

When we asked for a dessert list, our waiter rattled off the evening's offerings. He didn't mention cannolis, so we're assuming Mamma Germano wasn't in the kitchen that day.

The tiramisu and chocolate profiteroles were welcome interpretations of familiar desserts. But we really enjoyed the chocolate-stuffed crepe with macerated strawberries bathing in their sweet juices.

While La Scala may seem like an unexciting throwback with its ambience and food, it offers a comforting, delicious retreat from the proliferation restaurants boasting open ductwork, Edison lights and New American cuisine.

Viva Little Italy.

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La Scala Ristorante Italiano

Rating: 3 stars

Where: 1012 Eastern Ave., Little Italy

Contact: 410-783-9209, lascaladining.com

Open: 4:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 4:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday

Prices: Appetizers $8.95-$15.95; entrees, $15.95-$42.95

Food: Italian

Noise/TVs: The restaurant is boisterous in a congenial way, but it's still easy to hold a conversation; one TV.

Parking: Valet and street parking

Special diets: Can accommodate.

Reservation policy: Accepts reservations.

[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]

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