The more I thought about Dalesio's, the more I liked it.
There is something sweetly appealing about the restaurant's modest approach to dining. Dalesio's is one of the quieter restaurants in Little Italy.
The restaurant's Eastern Avenue location, on the border between Little Italy and Harbor East and away from the dense concentration of restaurants, has always made it an outlier. Unlike some of its better-known neighbors, it traffics neither in sausage-and-peppers nostalgia nor in 28-ounce veal-chop excess.
Dalesio's is right there in the middle, which, for a restaurant, is not always the most advantageous place to be. Diners tend to forget about those restaurants in the middle.
It wasn't always this way at Dalesio's, which was opened back in 1984 by chef Michael Dalesio with his wife, Cynthia. Dalesio introduced Baltimore to spa food, a style of cooking that emphasized creative presentations, small portions and healthful cooking — think skinless chicken breasts and whole-wheat pasta, but picture it pretty.
(The phrase "spa cuisine" was trademarked in 1983 by the owners of The Four Seasons restaurant in New York.)
Spa food was the last thing you expected from a Little Italy restaurant, but it was new and exciting, and it gave diners a reason to seek out Dalesio's. Paul Oliver, who bought the restaurant from the Dalesios in 1989, kept the spa food around for a while but gradually replaced it with the menu of traditional Northern Italian cuisine that is now served.
"People wanted Italian food," Oliver told me.
Only a spa salad — mixed greens tossed with Gorgonzola, walnuts and raisins — remains. But Oliver said he will still make spa food for longtime customers who ask for it.
Dalesio's first-floor dining room filled up bit by bit, on a recent Friday evening, which made it feel cozier and warmer. Neither too big nor too small, it's a conservative room but not stuffy. The room's floors are thickly carpeted, its gold-painted walls are decorated with framed landscapes and the tables are dressed with white cloths.
A waiter, polite but tentative, brought menus and, soon after, a basket of warm but slightly stale focaccia for dipping in olive oil. The bread in a second basket, though, was wonderful, fresh, buttery and well seasoned.
The menu is a straightforward list of about 10 appetizers and 20 entrees, small by Little Italy standards, with no dish singled out for your attention. The starters are salads, seafood specialties and small servings of pasta. The entrees are similarly sized groups of pasta, chicken, veal and seafood dishes.
We loved two of our appetizers. The lobster ravioli were large, pillowy pasta pockets filled with ground lobster meat and ricotta cheese and finished with an aromatic rose sauce. And that spa salad, served warm, was a savory and unusual first-course addition.
But the other two had problems. With their uniform appearance, ringlets of fried calamari made us think of a packaged product. And they weren't well-done enough. The filling in an appetizer of clams casino wasn't hot enough and had a gummy consistency.
Entrees were more consistent, and there are dishes to recommend. There was a fine version of eggplant Parmesan, which impressed with the tenderness of the eggplant beneath light and golden breading. The shrimp fra diavolo was another winner, a simple but pleasing preparation of garlicky, basil-scented shrimp over linguine, with just enough peppery kick to a lightly applied marinara sauce.
From the specials list, we chose, and mostly enjoyed, a crab cake served over penne. The crab cake was very good, packed with sweet, well-seasoned crab meat, but the pasta needed some more attention. It felt a little like an afterthought.
The linguine with clam sauce is described as "whole baby clams steamed and braised in virgin olive oil," but those qualities didn't show up on our plate in our serviceable dish. The clams didn't have much flavor on their own.
Dalesio's dessert selection is presented, quaintly, tableside on a tray. The homemade options include tiramisu, cheesecake, creme brulee and cannoli. The thing to get is limoncello cake, a light and refreshing layering of lemon-infused sponge cake and creamy mascarpone cheese.
I don't think Dalesio's offers a compelling dining experience, but it's in there trying, and the prices are moderate. The nicest thing about Dalesio's is its old-fashioned attitude about what diners expect from their restaurant experience. Sometimes all we want is dinner.
Nearby reviews: Dish Baltimore - Little Italy