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At Grano Emporio, satisfying old-school Italian fare

For The Baltimore Sun
At Hampden's Grano Emporio, it's old-school Italian, old-fashioned comfort.

On a single block in Hampden, the adventurous diner can find a duck-sausage sandwich, foamy French prix-fixe and something called a vegan power raw ball. Those seeking simpler pleasures need only cross Chestnut Avenue, where Grano Emporio serves old-school Italian fare in old-fashioned comfort.

Grano Emporio, on Chestnut just off The Avenue, can be hard to spot; a grapevine covers the front porch. The restaurant counts as a sequel to Grano Pasta Bar, the 10-seat BYOB on 36th Street, which has served satisfying pasta-and-sauce combos since 2008. Its success spurred co-owners Yolanda Padilla and husband, Gino Troia, scion of the sprawling Troia restaurant family, to open Grano Emporio, a bigger space with a broader menu, in 2010. It's been reliably welcoming since.

The restaurant is in a rowhouse — previously the china-and-silver annex of the vintage-chic Turnover Shop — and retains the well-worn feel. The entryway is crowded with Italian market staples ("grano" means "grain"; "emporio" means "market"), including imported wines, cheeses, flour and Mason jars full of local tomatoes.

"We've been doing farm-to-table since 1986," Troia said by phone a few days after my visit. He was harking back to his days at Cafe Troia in Towson. "Now we are too embarrassed to talk about it."

Not that Troia embarrasses easily. He once notoriously, in print, summarized local dining: "If I can express my true opinion, I have to say without reservation that most Italian restaurants in Maryland suck." He's considerably more affable at his place.

Take a seat in the narrow dining room, upstairs or down. If you're like us, you might find yourself an hour deep in polar bears versus global warming before you notice you haven't ordered. The service isn't lax, it's unobtrusive.

The menu is salted with a few surprises. Herring on toast? Cassoulet? Don't bother. The Troia family (restaurateurs back in Naples) has been cooking authentic southern Italian for generations. Stick with the classics.

The insalata romana is a fresh take on Caesar salad. It arrives as a crisp tumble of romaine and radicchio dressed, contrary to Caesar custom, with a light, bright vinaigrette. A corn chip — oddly — stands in as crouton. The antipasti include spheres of herb-flecked goat cheese (more tangy than thrilling), grilled calamari (wish they'd been warm) and thin slices of charred eggplant, tender and smoky, that I could live on, happily, forever.

Order the meatballs. These beefy no-crust heroes aren't unusual, but they roll around in the delicious house red sauce. It strikes that spot — smack dab between sweet and spicy — where my childhood memories of spaghetti-and-meatball perfection live.

The veal scaloppini sticks to formula — cross-cut, pounded thin, dusted with flour and browned. The menu says the sauce is simmered from lemon and sage; to me it didn't taste citrus bright, more basic brown.

The fish soup, on special that night, arrived a little drab in the broth and gritty in the clams, but its centerpiece — a chunk of Chilean sea bass — was a delight. Perfectly moist, it flaked tender on the fork and tasted of sweet ocean brine.

The best dishes we tried were meatless. The mozzarella fresca appetizer was the night's stunner. Tomato wedges lazily waved lettuce fronds from the edge of the plate, chorus girls to the main attraction. They were waiting for someone to break into the lump of mozzarella and gasp. Outside, it was shiny and smooth; inside it was packed with devastatingly luxurious curds. Most menus in town call such cream-centered mozzarella "burrata," which means buttered. I didn't care what it was called; I had to resist licking the plate.

The mushroom ravioli is simple: squares of delicate pasta folded over sauteed shiitake mushrooms. It's a dish that can be crushingly heavy; this version was heavy only on flavor. The mushrooms, softened with a little ricotta and brightened by sage, offered woodsy, savory satisfaction.

Even the simple linguine tossed with roasted garlic, olive oil and hot peppers yielded a nicely balanced bite.

Desserts were disappointing. The tiramisu, served in a martini glass, was something of an excavation from cocoa top, through creamy mascarpone middle to soggy biscuit bottom. The nonna cake looked promisingly like something from a grandma's kitchen — neat layers of thinly iced lemon cake. It had a nice crumb and not-too-sweet appeal, one overwhelmed by an overdose of limoncello.

It didn't matter; we had a velvet-soft 2009 Mascarello Barbera to work through, a meandering conversation to pursue and no one hovering with the check.

Linger at Grano Emporio, especially if you can snag a porch table shielded by grapevines. You might imagine you're back in the old country — Baltimore, before dining got complicated.

Grano Emporio

Rating:

Where: 3547 Chestnut Ave.

Contact: (443) 438-7521, granoemporio.com or, to get the current menu, email info@granoemporio.com

Open: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Closed Mondays.

Prices: Appetizers $8-$11; pastas $11-$22; meat and seafood $16-$32; desserts $4-$7

Food: A cozy spot for classic southern Italian with some outstanding vegetarian options.

Service: Friendly and unobtrusive.

Parking: Lot parking available.

Noise level/TVs: No TVs.

Reservations: Required, but you can probably walk in on a weeknight.

Restricted diets: Lots of vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options. Every page of the menu bears a warning about allergens.

Nearby reviews: Dish Baltimore - Hampden/Woodberry

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