We had a good old time at Marchionda's, an accomplished but unassuming Italian restaurant that might coax city diners farther up Harford Road than they've been in a long time.
Marchionda's opened in late July, in the rowhouse space that was for so many years Angelina's. When it finally closed in 2009, Angelina's was a run-down version of its former self, and it never had been a particularly fancy restaurant. But it was a fine place to go for, yes, the famous crab cake, as well as for good Italian food. Marchionda's wants to be just that kind of place.
The owners of Marchionda's are the family team of Frances and Tonney Crews and their daughter Joann Stoffel. They've invested a lot in renovating the restaurant. Brick archways separate the two main-floor dining rooms, which have been decorated simply with flowers, paintings and wine bottles. Basically, Marchionda's looks like nice restaurants did a generation or two back. I mean this as a compliment. Marchionda's isn't dining as theater; it's dining as dinner.
The owners have invested in a kitchen team equipped to execute their vision of a neighborhood Italian restaurant. The chef is Frank White, formerly the executive chef at Rolling Road Country Club. The restaurant prides itself on making its pasta and sauces on premises, which puts Marchionda's right in line with the culinary trend toward real food and freshness.
There are a few simple pasta dishes on the menu and a handful of classic Italian dishes like chicken Milanese, bookmaker salad, and sausage and peppers. I loved the light and springlike gnocchi in pistachio pesto sauce and the straightforward version of veal Parmesan, which Marchionda's serves with homemade spaghetti tossed in a zesty tomato sauce, also homemade.
But there are also solid bistro entrees like grilled rib-eye steak and pan-seared Chilean sea bass that you'll want to try, which should tell you that Marchionda's might not turn out to be a bargain night. And the insistence on good ingredients makes Marchionda's prices a dollar or two higher than the chain restaurants it's competing with.
For my money, it's worth it. At Marchionda's, the good grilled rib-eye steak comes with a pleasantly forceful port wine sauce and a puree of cannellini beans. It's real food. The flavors are fresh, the cooking is confident and a few dishes rise to the level of excellence.
There are deceptively simple items, like the appetizer of Marchionda's meatballs — firm little things made of pork, veal and beef, smothered with a rich and robust, slow-cooked tomato gravy and graced with a pretty white dollop of homemade basil-flavored ricotta cheese. And there are impressively conceived entrees like the grilled baby rack of lamb, which the kitchen marinates in olive oil, rosemary, garlic and sage, and coats with a tasty pistachio crust.
Everything coming out of the kitchen showed signs of care, from conception to preparation to plating.
The breading in the clams casino was pleasantly crunchy but didn't overwhelm the clams' flavor; the warm marinara sauce served with an appetizer of lightly fried calamari tasted like real food instead of a food-service product; and steamed mussels showed up clean and glistening in a fine white-wine and garlic sauce.
Our waiter, who had good advice about the menu, was eager for us to try the pan-seared Chilean sea bass. Marchionda's white-wine preparation livens things up with capers, mushrooms, dried grape tomatoes, artichoke hearts and a savory Parmesan risotto cake. It's a great choice for diners who enjoy mild fish but don't want it served blandly.
There are good choices for dessert, such as pistachio cheesecake and cannoli, which Marchionda's brings in from elsewhere but dresses up with sauces and chocolate lace.
The only concern I have about Marchionda's has to do with its location, a few blocks short of the county line, where there are superb traditional bakeries and delicatessens but few if any restaurants with foodie followings — the hot spots of Harford Road are about 20 blocks south.
Local residents will have to support the idea of paying more for better, fresher fare, and the restaurant will have to stay committed to serving it.
Marchionda's is that restaurant we all love: the good neighborhood joint you tell your friends about.
Rating: 3 stars
Where: 7135 Harford Road
Contact: 410-444-5545, marchiondas.com
Prices: Appetizers $7.95-$11.95; entrees $14.95-$32.95
Food: Traditional Italian
Service: Personable and very helpful
Best dishes: Meatballs, veal Parmesan, clams casino
Parking/accessibility: On-street parking
Outdoor: There are a few tables on the front porch.
Children: There is a children's menu upon request.
Noise level/televisions: Sinatra-style classics play over quiet dining rooms; no television sets except in the downstairs bar.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]