When I lived in Chicago in the '90s, Friday nights after class would often find me at my favorite tavern, The Hopleaf, with friends and a pint of Sprecher Black Bavarian. Inevitably, after our bellies yearned for more than alcohol, we would walk a block north to Cousin's or Reza's or the Olive Tree takeout for pita or grape leaves or kebabs to soak up the beer. Cheap Persian food was plentiful on the city's north side and I never tired of it. And in the days before hummus was readily available in every grocery store aisle, the meal always seemed like a treat on a student budget, not to mention a gloriously delicious way to kick off the weekend.
Persian restaurants haven't found quite as firm a footing in Baltimore, but a visit to Villagio Café (6805 York Road,  372-2200, villagiocafe.net), which opened in December in the former Stoneleigh Bakery space on York Road, will make you wish they had. (And yes, the restaurant sounds Italian, but it's actually Persian.) Done up in warm wood, draped fabric, and a few overstuffed dining chairs, the storefront still feels resolutely casual. Menus are laminated sheets and servers—some more experienced than others—bustle through the dining room with takeout orders bundled up in white plastic bags.
Villagio has become popular in a short time, and during a midweek evening, the space filled with dating couples, a crew of beefy, burly men toting a Playmate cooler (the restaurant is BYOB with no corkage fee), and a family with an infant who uttered the cry of one recently born and to whom no one in the restaurant appeared to give a second thought. Family friendly indeed.
So sure, folks come because this is a neighborhood joint, and jeez, is it reasonable, but the bottom line is Villagio produces some tasty grub, much of it familiar, but some of it not. Exhibit one: the appetizer platter ($13.99), a lazy Susan laden with a pleasantly salty hummus; baba ghanouj (slightly too smooth in texture); three plump grape leaves; mast-o-khyar, a yogurt-based dip with cucumbers and mint akin to raita; a tartly dressed chopped salad of tomatoes, cukes, onion, and parsley known as shirazi; and olovieh, another salad, this time a fresh mix of chicken, potatoes, peas, and pickles in a creamy dressing. Ordering the platter covers many of the individual offerings available on the menu, except for the roasted eggplant appetizer ($4.99), which I find hard to resist. It is not, perhaps, the most visually appealing dish—baked eggplant often isn't—but the texture is pleasantly chunky, with smoky nuances throughout and no bitterness. Villagio also offers an array of salads—tabbouleh, Greek, Caesar—and soups, though their availability may not be consistent in the warmer weather.
The main courses at Villagio mostly consist of kebabs and more kebabs, and if that doesn't suit your fancy, you can certainly make a meal of appetizers. One of the few non-kebab entrees is the veggie stew ($8.99), a tomato-based mixture of okra, onions, and yellow split peas that I found bland, but other diners at the table defended as a fine handling of okra. If you decide on kebabs, however, you can do so without trepidation. It can be easy to be disappointed in kebabs. Dryness is the key flaw. Sameness (is this beef or chicken?) is another. But the four kinds of kebabs I tried (on two combination platters) were all uniformly good, and served on massive silver trays, they looked spectacular. Seafood soltani ($23.99), a combination of shrimp and salmon pieces, both sporting a spicy kick, is served with sabzi polo, a lovely combination of basmati rice flecked with parsley, cilantro, and chives—pretty to both the eyes and the tongue. Chicken soltani ($11.99) includes chicken (natch), koobideh, a kebab of ground beef, onion, and spices, and basmati flavored with saffron. Kebabs of vegetables or lamb are also available.
Our server, new to the restaurant and a little shy and unsure but game to find answers to our questions, offered homemade baklava, but there was no room left after the rice. Next time, though. Given the quality of the rest of the meal, I would expect it to please.
Villagio Café is open Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., and Sunday Noon-8 p.m.