Once a kitchen, now a taverna, Fazzini's makes an impressive move

Fazzini's Taverna had been open only about six weeks when we visited on a Saturday night.

The restaurant, which occupies the old Piv's location on York Road in Cockeysville, was very crowded, with a 45-minute wait for a table if you were silly enough not to make a reservation on a Saturday night.

There is a good explanation for the out-the-door crowds. Fazzini's Taverna is just about the most all-around satisfying restaurant I've reviewed in months and months. We had a great meal here, excellent service and a wonderful time.

So word, as they say, is out. But Fazzini's opened with a built-in following. Before coming to York Road, Fazzini's operated for about a dozen years in a now-closed storefront location on Cranbrook Road, where it was known as Fazzini's Italian Kitchen.

The focus at Fazzini's Taverna remains what it had been at Fazzini's Italian Kitchen: made-from-scratch pastas, full-bodied sauces and sterling preparations of traditional Italian-American restaurant dishes that diners highly praised.

They'll find their old favorites at the new restaurant. The pastas are featured on the menu's build-your-own pasta section, which offers a choice of noodles, a choice of sauces and after-market accessories like meatballs, sausage, chicken and shrimp.

And then there's that lasagna.

Fazzini's serves the type of lasagna we have in our head when we think about lasagna. It's the kind with plenty of well-seasoned meat, in this case beef and sausage, and ricotta cheese in between layers of thick noodles that are just charred on the edges, with gooey strands of mozzarella cheese in every forkful. Plus, it was brought to the table directly from the oven, hot as blazes.

The eggplant Parmesan is equally good. It's no mean feat keeping the slices of eggplant crispy underneath marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese, but Fazzini's kitchen pulled it off. The trick is keeping the eggplant slices nice and thin, and that's just what Fazzini's did.

Another classic Italian-American menu item, breaded chicken over linguini, looked too simple, almost bland when it arrived at the table, but it turned out to be another winner. The achievement here was the breading, which was seasoned liberally with herbs and pepper but which was not overly salty. The linguini was very good, too.

All of this will delight fans of the old Fazzini's, which was always one of those places people liked in spite of its storefront atmosphere. People were just as likely to use Fazzini's as carryout as they were a dine-in place.

The old Fazzini's changed hands in 2010, when it was purchased by Jeb and Ari Brownstein, a father and son, who made some physical improvements but had their eyes out for bigger digs. They wanted a place where people might come for a weekend dinner out with friends, or for a family celebration. And they wanted a place with a liquor license.

The new Fazzini's is just that kind of place. We saw family groups and older folks seated in the bar area, and groups of younger folks in the adjacent dining room, which has been given an effective cosmetic face-lift courtesy of fresh paint, new upholstery and improved lighting.

The new Fazzini's has a much more elaborate menu than the old Fazzini's. There are entrees, like grilled hanger steak with wood-fired, paprika-dusted potatoes, and red snapper with braised Belgian endive, that would look right at home on any contemporary bistro menu. We'll be back for those. For the first visit, it was lasagna we wanted for the main course.

We're encouraged by the appetizers we tried, things like plump prawns in garlic-parsley butter; crispy asparagus fritters served with a homemade remoulade; and oven-baked goat cheese in an herbed tomato sauce. We managed to find a few things we didn't love — the Greek salad is dressed with a sweet vinaigrette.

Fazzini's liquor license certainly adds to the festive air pervading the dining rooms. The wine list is broad and accessible, heavy with pinot noirs and chardonnays from California, and the cocktail list is impressively frolicsome, with such summer-ready concoctions as a blood orange and fizzy doses throughout of classic bitter aperitifs like Aperol and Campari — I mention them by name because it made me glad to see Fazzini's using them.

It told me that Fazzini's Taverna was serious about being more than just a larger version of its old self.

Fazzini's Taverna

Rating: 3.5 stars

Where: 9811 York Road, Cockeysville

Contact: 410-667-6104, fazzinis.com

Open: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11:30 a.m.. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays

Prices: Appetizers: $7-$13; entrees: $16-$25

Food: Classic and contemporary Italian cuisine

Service: Friendly, informed and very helpful.

Parking: Ample parking on the restaurant's private lot.

Outdoor dining: There is seating for 80 on the full-service patio.

Children: A children's menu is offered upon request.

Special diets: The staff is prepared to offer gluten-free/vegetarian from the menu and to suggest modifications to menu items. Gluten-free pasta is always an option.

Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation was fine in the main dining spaces. There are two televisions in the bar area, with their volume typically turned low.

[Star key: Superlative: 5; Excellent: 4; Very Good: 3; Good: 2 ; Promising: 1]

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