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Hersh's, more than pizza, is a south-side destination

Hersh's Pizza & Drinks is the modest and unassuming name Josh and Stephanie Hershkovitz, brother and sister, gave to their Riverside neighborhood restaurant.

And yes, the restaurant serves pizza — wonderful and surprising wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas, topped with prime ingredients like homemade mozzarella, woody oyster mushrooms, braised fennel and guanciale, a prized cured meat made from the pork cheeks or jowls.

And it's true that there's a smart cocktail program, with a welcome focus on aperitifs and digestifs, those things that wake up your taste buds before a hearty meal and settle your system afterward. The beers on tap are seasonable with good porters, stouts and other strong brews. The wine list is confidently simple, with about a half-dozen white and red listings, most of them available in small and large pours.

But Hersh's is more than just the sum of its pizza and drinks. There are soups, salads and homemade pastas, too, along with a listing of about 10 small plates. And when all is said and done, you can put together a very satisfying and not-too-expensive dinner at Hersh's without any pizza at all.

Before opening Hersh's, Josh Hershkovitz worked for the Foreman-Wolf restaurant group, primarily at Petit Louis. As a team, though, the siblings' main experience was staging the kind of lavish dinner parties that make guests say, "You two should open up your own restaurant."

And it's that quality of making guests happy that makes Hersh's click. The atmosphere is warm and rustic, the kind of place where diners feel comfortable diving right into the menu.

Right now, you should dive right into the zuppa di zucca, a rich, creamy and pumpkin soup topped with creme fraiche and toasted pumpkin seeds — it's one of prettiest pumpkin soups I've seen — and dosed with more pepper than you may have been expecting. But it's just the right amount of heat. Pumpkin-based dishes can be cloying, but not this one. It's tantalizing.

Also get the baccala montecato, the restaurant's impressive version of the classic appetizer of whipped salt-cod. Hersh's serves its baccala warm on squares of toast, and dresses it smartly with arugula and pickled cipollini onions, both of which help offset the fish's assertive creaminess.

We ordered the ligurian ciuppin as an appetizer, although it's substantial enough to be a main course. As you might have guessed, ciuppin is similar to cioppino, the famed San Francisco tomato-based seafood stew. Sources say ciuppin was the original, and Hersh's version — which begins with a spicy, full-bodied broth, flavored with rockfish bones, and then filled with shrimp, calamari and clams — will make a believer out of you.

"Why is this so good?" we asked our waitress, who told us, without missing a beat, that the kitchen cooks the different seafood separately before adding it into the broth.

Among the appetizers, only the wood-fired shrimp and calamari, served in an iron skillet, was uninvolving, maybe by comparison.

We made a second course from pastas, which are offered in small and large portions. Think of bigoli all'amatriciana as spaghetti and tomato sauce that's grown up and seen the world. Flavored with pancetta and pecorino Romano, the fiery sauce coated every strand of the homemade pasta. Fettuccine in cauliflower broth, tossed with pistachios and fresh egg yolk, was pretty but too subtle to share the table with this powerhouse, but it would have worked well on its own, or as a main course.

For big appetites, Hersh's was serving, in addition to the ciuppin, a dandy brisket special. Served over creamy polenta with mustard greens and golden raisins, the brisket was tender, with the slightly burnt, caramelized edges that brisket lovers look for.

And then, there are the superb thin-crust pizzas, which we've tried and enjoyed on previous trips, particularly a memorable version with kale and pistachio and another with clams, garlic, lemon and parsley. This time, we ordered, and shared, the fumo e fuoco, topped with smoked mozzarella, fried eggplant chili oil, and, optionally, lamb sausage. A fine example of Hersh's big-flavor approach, it'd be the worth the drive to Riverside on its own.

We had room for a single dessert, a budino, a style of Italian pudding that Hersh's used as an excuse to create an intensely creamy chocolate experience.

Hersh's, in short, works for dinner. But just to be absolutely clear, it works for pizza, too, and, for that matter, it works for a stroll over for a beer at the bar.

Hersh's Pizza & Drinks

Rating: 3.5 stars

Where: 1843 Light St., Riverside

Contact: 443-438-4948,

Open: Dinner Wednesday through Monday; closed on Tuesday

Prices: Appetizers: $6-$10; Entrees: $24-$25

Food: Antipasti, pastas, hearty specials and wood-fired pizza

Service: Informed and personable

Parking/accessibility: Street parking, with good availability on Wells Street

Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is comfortable in main dining room, which adjacent to the bar. There are no televisions.

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

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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