We live in an exciting time for restaurant connoisseurs, with experimental concepts and new ideas popping up every day. These places are often wonderful, but sometimes they prove to be little more than flashes in the pan.
In the midst of such trendiness, it's reassuring to know that some "old faithful" restaurants remain — places that feel special but also familiar.
Liberatore's Ristorante in Timonium is one of those places. A recent dinner filled with luxurious sauces and attentive service at the classic Italian restaurant felt timeless.
But that doesn't mean the Liberatores, the family behind the restaurant, are change-averse. In recent years, the Liberatore restaurant empire has expanded from its roots in Eldersburg to include new locations with slight variations on the original concept. Lib's Grill in Perry Hall serves steaks and seafood in a more casual setting. Liquid Lib's, the wine bar attached to the Timonium restaurant, focuses on small plates and good bottles.
At the Timonium restaurant, new items pop up on the menu here and there. An outdoor patio was added and the space remodeled.
But through those changes, the Liberatore family has been careful not to mess with the core of what works at the restaurant, from the menu to the ambience. The space is conservatively decorated, with pale-green walls, comfortable chairs, generously sized tables and crisp white linens. The service is thoughtful and refined.
We started dinner with generous portions of bruschetta, the tomatoes ripe and well-seasoned, and a plate of grilled calamari. The squid's smoky scent and tender texture was lovely; together, they made the marinara provided for dipping superfluous.
Liberatore's menu is long, showcasing a wide variety of Italian dishes, from simple pastas to lush seafood and meat creations dreamed up by the kitchen. The menu does evolve, though in keeping with the restaurant's commitment to sticking with what works, certain dishes have been mainstays since the early years.
One such dish is the chicken Giovanni, a popular creation and a Liberatore's original. Years ago, when John Liberatore worked at Da Mimmo's in Little Italy, he made the dish for himself when he was hungry. Decades later, people love it so much that he doesn't even entertain the idea of taking it off the menu — and he shouldn't. The sumptuous combination of chicken, spinach and melted mozzarella, bathed in a lively sauce of white wine, lemon and rosemary, proves that chicken breast doesn't have to be boring or dry.
Veal Liberatore and lobster and shrimp tetrazzini both showed off the kitchen's skill with lush cream sauces. The seafood, which included chunks of lobster tail and large shrimp, was sweet and decadent in a brandy-laced cream sauce. The veal, tender enough to cut with a fork, was sprinkled with lumps of crabmeat and dressed with a delicate, velvety sauce.
With their extravagant sauces and top-drawer ingredients, the seafood entrees felt like special-occasion food — and Liberatore's mostly feels like a special-occasion place. But there's room for the restaurant in a family's regular rotation, too, with dishes like the tortellacchi pizzaioli, which is more everyday fare though still terrific. The oversized tortellini stuffed with veal and beef and topped with chunky, fragrant tomato sauce seemed less upscale than the other entrees, but the silky pasta and bright, flavorful sauce were far from low-brow. The thick sauce, seasoned with Italian spices, would be welcome on our plates anytime.
Liberatore's wine list is carefully curated, with a heavy emphasis on bottles from Italy and California. We opted for chardonnay from Cline Cellars in Sonoma County, a fruity white with enough acidity to balance the rich cream sauces.
In keeping with its old-school sensibility, Liberatore's still employs a dessert tray, a fun visual stimulus that makes sweets seem like a good idea, even after cream sauces and pasta.
We couldn't resist a slice of coconut cake, made in-house. Moist yellow cake, layered with creamy white frosting, was light enough that, even after a huge meal, we didn't regret it.
During our Thursday evening meal, the restaurant was mostly full, but the space never seemed overly busy and our meal felt unrushed, thanks to smart pacing from the kitchen and a waitress who was unobtrusive but available whenever we needed her.
The skilled service and those classic meals are testaments to the value of experience. Liberatore's has spent the past 22 years fine-tuning its Timonium outpost. The effort shows, and makes us hope the family will continue on the same path for decades to come.
Nearby reviews: Dish Baltimore - Lutherville-Timonium