Italian food brings people together. It can be vegetarian-friendly but also appease meat-lovers. Some dishes are comforting and stick to the ribs; others are light and healthy. It's beloved by all ages — toddlers like it just as much as grandmothers. Its popularity is vast — this year, the National Restaurant Association reported that 61 percent of Americans eat Italian food at least once a month.
It was no surprise, then, to see a wide range of ages among the diners at CuVino, a restaurant and wine shop that opened in August in Timonium. That those guests all seemed happy and satisfied was also not much of a shock.
CuVino's owners, brothers Angelo and Ralph Di Biasi, have years of experience in the local restaurant business. Their late father co-owned Chef Paolino Cafe in Catonsville, giving the siblings a close look at the industry from a young age. When they were older, the brothers owned Mama Lucia in Parkville; Angelo Di Biasi also owned Upper Crust, a pizza restaurant in Owings Mills.
The CuVino concept is a straightforward one. The name is a hybrid of cucina, or kitchen, and vino, or wine. The restaurant offers plenty of both. The menu covers familiar territory — traditional pastas, entrees and pizzas — and the kitchen, run by Angelo, turns out good versions of those classics.
On the recommendation of our waitress, we started with bruschetta, which was tastybut better after we added a sprinkle of salt.
Potato croquettes — were a more interesting and better-executed dish. Three large spheres of potato, mozzarella and prosciutto, covered in bread crumbs and fried, were seasoned well, nicely cooked and piping hot upon arrival. We liked the contrasting textures — crunchy exterior and creamy interior — and the substantial weight of the dish as a whole.
Entrees, across the board, were satisfying, if not terribly adventurous. A bowl of bucatini tossed with puttanesca sauce was briny and well-balanced, though we wanted more acid to brighten the sauce.
Shrimp fra diavolo was as spicy a version of the dish as we've tried, with a handful of nicely cooked shrimp scattered across linguine dressed in a red sauce that was doused with enough red pepper to make our eyes go wide at the first bite.
Veal saltimbocca was lovely, but some bites of veal could have been more tender. We liked the sweet and savory Marsala sauce, though, and the dish was seasoned nicely overall.
CuVino's pizza options include Sicilian- or New York-style crusts; we opted for the thinner New York crust on our "Rustica" pie. Topped with pancetta, pepperoni, sausage, caramelized onions, spinach, tomatoes and mozzarella, the pie was full of flavor and the crust, though thin, stood up to the pile of toppings.
The wine aspect of CuVino also offers a lot to love — and a lot to learn. That the Di Biasis are serious about their wine is readily apparent upon walking into the restaurant: Wine racks along the wall hold hundreds of bottles. The rest of the warmly lit space is occupied by tables and booths, with a small bar in the center and an open kitchen in the back. But it's those wine bottles that are the focus.
The wine list is an educational tome; we appreciated its high level of detail and the recommendations included in the newsy "staff picks" section. The number of choices under $40 was also appealing.
We settled on a bottle of Umberto Cesari sangiovese, a bright and fruity red we liked best with the pizza but that paired decently with all of our dishes.
We were pleased to discover that our waitress was extremely well-versed in both the wine and food options. She knew the menu inside and out. Unfortunately, she was so enthusiastic that she came across as overbearing. We hesitate to complain about service that is too attentive — it's certainly better than being ignored. But the extra attention felt like pressure to make decisions and make them quickly.
The best Italian dinners are, like meals in Italy, leisurely affairs. By the time we got to dessert — a sweet cannoli and a plate of zeppoli, or tiny, sugar-dusted rounds of fried dough — the timing of the evening had slowed to a more hospitable pace and our waitress was allowing us a little more room to chat on our own.
By that point, nursing the last of our wine, we were content, full and satisfied. Exactly the way every Italian meal should end.
Rating: ¿1/2 stars
Where: 61 E. Padonia Road, Timonium
Contact: 410-853-7484; tastecuvino.com
Open: Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, salads and soups, $5.95 to $12.95; Pastas and entrees, $12.95 to $30.99
Food: Traditional Italian dishes and pizzas
Noise/TVs: Moderate conversational noise; one television behind the bar
Service: Friendly and knowledgeable but overly attentive at times
Parking: Lot in front
Special diets: Menu includes gluten-free items, including pizza; kitchen will work with diners to adjust dishes
Reservation policy: Reservations are accepted
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars ; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]
An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the relationship of the co-owners of Chef Paolino Cafe. They are not brothers.