By Donna Ellis
11:19 AM EDT, October 26, 2012
It is said that if you want really good Italian food, you should go to a restaurant where the chef is from Casablanca, Morocco. Nah, I made that up. But it could be a truism. The kitchen of Salute Ristorante Italiano, just over the Howard County line, in downtown Laurel, turns out some very, very good Italian fare indeed.
The 53-seat storefront eatery at 504 Main St. has a theater as a neighbor, and a little bit beyond is a liquor store. This is important information, because although Salute doesn’t have a liquor license, owners Abdellah and Meriem Kass invite you to bring whatever spirits you wish to accompany the dinner he prepares for you and she serves to you.
My party of four recently visited Salute for dinner, since the restaurant is only open for the evening meal, except if you’re planning a large private party at lunchtime.
Step inside the restaurant and you’ll find a little oasis of relaxed and friendly service and, happily, creative and well-balanced Italian classics -- both north and south. Windows at the side of the dining room feature wrought-iron grills, which seem rather Moroccan, actually. They’re covered with softly printed swags and burgundy-tinted sheers. Walls are hung with black and white photos, a lot of people in them, purportedly Italian, since two of them feature Sophia Loren.
White swag lights provide subtle lighting for tables that are topped with white linen cloths, covered with white craft paper. Beige cloth napkins are arranged at each place. Background music is low, this night featuring ’40s crooners, including “Old Blue Eyes” himself.
The quiet setting allows your group to actually talk to one another and, of course, to focus on the delicious meal ahead.
The menu is simple, and very reasonably priced, with many of the classics and a few dishes you may not have tried before in an Italian eatery. According to Meriem, the bill of fare hasn’t changed much since Salute opened in March 2011. But Chef Abdellah gets to strut his stuff with daily specials emphasizing seasonal ingredients.
Appetizers included crab bisque ($4.50/cup), which is the only soup on the menu and clearly the Kasses’ nod to their Maryland home. It is among the best we’ve tried -- not thick, but of the proper consistency and very intensely flavored. Polenta con la Salsiccia ($8.95) was more like it. A timbale of creamy, comforting cornmeal pudding was surrounded by thinly sliced spicy grilled Italian sausage in a fennel-infused tomato sauce. Plenty to share.
We also sampled one of the six pizza selections, a 12-inch pie titled Quattro Stagioni (meaning four seasons). The $10.95 offering featured four different toppings, each representing a season. The thin, chewy crust (just the way we like it) was home to tomato sauce, mozzarella, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, olives, anchovies and fresh tomatoes. Definitely a keeper.
For entrees, our traditionalist opted for Vitello Parmesan ($16.95). A more than ample cutlet had been breaded and fried quite nicely so that the slightly crisp exterior kept the veal moist and tender inside. Accompanying the dish were the chef’s choice of pasta, in this case penne, with the kitchen’s creditable marinara sauce.
One guest savored a dish from the 12-item risotto and pasta section of the menu. His choice was the Calamari Siciliano ($15.95). The large soup plate was laden with lots of tender squid pieces that had been simply sautéed in olive oil and garlic and then generously spooned over a bed of al dente spaghetti in a rich, thick, intense tomato sauce.
Another menu item is simply labeled Agnello ($19.95). There’s also Agnello Osso Buco as a choice, but our taster opted for the slightly more unusual combination of a richly flavored, moist, fall-off-the-bone tender lamb shank sided by fresh, tender figs and earthy goat cheese, and drizzled with a rich, flavorsome port wine sauce, yielding a charming combination of flavors and textures and comfort (for this inveterate lamb-ophile). A chef’s choice pasta accompanied, this time homemade cheese ravioli pillows with a Gorgonzola sauce, garnished with lightly fried pancetta and fresh, tender peas.
And our fourth diner chose a chef’s special, this night lobster ravioli in lobster cream sauce ($19.95). Tender housemade square pasta pillows were replete with plenty of North Atlantic lobster and ladled with more bits of lobster in the rich creamy sauce that covered them.
There’s a single-item children’s section on the menu ($7.95). It’s pasta, featuring the kid’s choice of noodles (spaghetti, linguine or fettuccine) and topped by tomato sauce, meat sauce or alfredo sauce.
There are also three dessert choices: tiramisu, creme caramel and sorbet, at $5.50 each.
We were too old for the former and too full for the latter. Maybe on our next visit, which will probably be soon.
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