Most would agree that some cosmetic surgery can give us the proverbial new lease on life. It applies to people. It applies to restaurants. Aface-liftis just what Chris Infantino, the current owner of Tino’s Italian Bistro, did when he acquired the storefront space formerly known as Strapazza.
There wasn’t much Infantino’s interior designer could do about the building’s facade, but inside you’ll find a handsomely reconfigured upscale-looking restaurant/bistro/trattoria -- in the burnt sienna walls, the wrought-iron sculptures hung on them, the floor-to-ceiling wine rack that divides the two dining rooms. The open kitchen at the back of the 115-seat eatery also lends a contemporary touch.
Of course, a face-lift may not be enough to assure success in a restaurant. We are pleased to report that Tino’s approach to Italian food is pretty much as handsome as its new look.
Interestingly, Executive Chef Edgar Navarette is among the only elements at Tino’s that are left over from the previous restaurant. He was the original chef when Strapazza opened, and after a stint at front-of-the-house operations, he is back where he most likes to be, in that open kitchen.
During a Sunday evening visit, we got in on a Tino’s special -- a 25 percent discount on a bottle of wine for each entree purchased. Since there were four, and since we each ordered an entree -- well, you figure it out.
A bottle of Hang Time Pinot Noir from California made a pleasant aperitif while we made our selections. The Tino’s menu is large and features just about everything you’d expect from an Italian bistro, plus a few surprises.
Our appetizer choices included a pair of salads. The Caesar ($5.95) was on the smallish side, but featured impeccably fresh and crisp romaine, housemade croutons, good-quality Parmesan cheese and a nicely balanced creamy dressing. The Caprese ($8.99) was large (as it should be for the price), with lovely fresh plum tomatoes, good-quality fresh mozzarella slices set over mesclun and topped by a mellow balsamic vinaigrette.
Fried calamari ($10.99) were ample for sharing. Lightly breaded cornmeal, fried golden crisp, the small rings and tentacles were tender. Good on their own, or with a warm marinara and/or lemon wedges.
And from the side dish section, served with toasted garlic bread, we sampled meatballs ($5.99), which seem to be garnering retro-respect these days as a menu feature all on their own. Three of them -- quite large, firm, meaty and tender -- come with the dish, and are enhanced with a housemade marinara, which is among the best we’ve tried. It’s bright red, chunky, fresh-tasting, not heavy on the herbs but nicely balanced -- a sauce you’d like to just scoop up with a spoon and enjoy.
Pizza, pasta and more
Arguably the most unusual item we ordered that night was an entree pizza. Not that pizza is so unusual -- Tino’s has designed 10 of them plus offers a choice of nearly 20 toppings. Our taster opted for the Hawaiian pizza (10-inch/$11.99), which is certainly not on my pizza top-10 list. However, the pie arrived hot and fragrant, and Tino’s combination of ham, pineapple and melty mozzarella atop a thin glaze of tomato sauce was pretty good. Our taster really liked it, although opined it needed more tomato sauce.
The rest of us were more traditional. One chose baked ziti ($9.99/dinner size) from the baked dishes section. This comfort dish came mounded on a plate, and not in a ramekin as we sort of expected. Tender pasta tubes, nice and hot, were served with a rich sauce and lots of cheese.
And more pasta: The spaghetti puttanesca ($12.99) was a large serving, traditionally said to be a late snack for “ladies of the evening” just before they retired for the night. And as is traditional, the al dente pasta was tossed with a marinara sauce enhanced with black olives, capers and anchovies. We would’ve liked more anchovies, but the sauce was nicely balanced and very satisfying.
The bistro’s veal Parmesan ($16.99/dinner size) consisted of a pair of cutlets lightly breaded and sauteed to a moist and tender finish under a golden brown coat, then gently glazed with tomato sauce topped by melty mozzarella. It came with al dente spaghetti on the side.
While we don’t usually get dessert, we had a coupon for a free one. So we chose to share tiramisu (usually $6.99). It was a generous portion proffering all the goodies we like: four layers of tender sponge cake moistened with coffee liqueur and Marsala wine, layered with creamy mascarpone cheese and topped with an oozy chocolate sauce.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun