Dining review

Dinner with Firenze family tastes like home

For The Baltimore Sun
Dinner at Ristorante Firenze brings home Italian flavors.

With ties to the now-closed Velleggia's in Baltimore, Larry and Brian Leonardi know a thing or two about Italian restaurants. In their youth, the brothers worked at their uncle's downtown restaurant as busboys, servers and cooks. They pursued other careers before heading north this year to open their own dining spot specializing in Tuscan cuisine. Today, their Ristorante Firenze is a thriving Little Italy outpost in Reisterstown.

You'll find handmade pastas, classics like manicotti, lasagna and gnocchi, and entrees featuring veal, chicken and seafood. There are also focaccia-bread pizzas and ciabatta sandwiches at the stylish restaurant that anchors the historic town's lineup of quaint shops.

The dining room, designed by Rita St. Clair Associates, has elegant touches amid a casual vibe. A colorful Murano glass chandelier immediately caught our eye, as did a see-through wine cellar. The glassed-in shelves serve as a divider for the bar, which has a gorgeous Carrara marble top and a comfy lounge area with a fireplace.

Beige and burnt-orange walls with black and white prints of scenes from the Old Country are soothing amid the normal bustle of the wait staff. We couldn't figure out why every server was wearing black except for a dedicated Ravens fan who sported a purple team jersey. But that certainly didn't distract from the meal. We liked his enthusiasm during a lackluster season.

Handcrafted cocktails, local beers like Monument City 51 Rye IPA and an impressive 500-plus bottles of wine are available for sipping. An iPad allows you to search the list of mostly Italian and California vintages. It's the kind of place where you can sip an $8 glass of Chianti Classico or blow your budget on a $550 bottle of 2011 Antinori Solaia Toscano.

Appetizers are definitely shareable. Two of us split an eggplant caprese tower and still had leftovers of the crunchy fried eggplant, fresh mozzarella and tomato stack drizzled with zesty pesto vinaigrette. The fried mozzarella was a pleasant interpretation of the dish with crispy cheese triangles instead of the ubiquitous bland sticks to be dipped into a thick marinara sauce.

The three meatball sliders featured savory beef rounds enveloped with the restaurant's homey marinara sauce and a mild provolone cheese. They were tucked into mini buns and were easily a meal unto themselves.

We were still devouring our starters when the salads arrived. It makes me anxious when the table becomes littered with plates. What is the protocol? Should you stop eating your current dish? A restaurant of this caliber should be able to better time the arrival of each course.

A nicety, though, is that our server made sure to ask if we wanted our dressings on the side. The Caesar's had a subtle note of anchovy, which we liked. You won't be deterred if you're not a fan of the salty fish. The piquant Gorgonzola vinaigrette and a smooth ranch were good additions for the crisp house salads.

The entrees were terrific. For most of them, you pick a go-along pasta to your liking. Our fettuccine was a little too al dente for the veal Marsala, though it was a good vehicle for the heady wine reduction that bathed the noodles and mushroom slices. For the shrimp Parmesan, five plump, lightly breaded shrimp sported a mantle of cheese like a mantilla while resting on a nest of fragrant, tomato-sauced spaghetti.

The lobster ravioli were delicate pasta squares with an equally fine filling of lobster meat. The Old Bay cream sauce added spicy lushness to the regal dish. We have to congratulate someone's mom for our favorite pasta of the evening: rigatoni a la Mama. Fat macaroni tubes were speckled with prosciutto cubes, bright green peas and onions and coated with a mellow cream sauce tinged rosy pink from tomatoes.

I've always been a fan of lemon bars, but Firenze refreshes the citrusy dessert with a thick layer of cannoli cream sporting sticks of pastry shells like birthday candles on a cake. The snowy-white, three-layer coconut cake was an excellent version with creamy frosting and a generous sprinkling of shredded coconut. A flourless chocolate torte labeled as gluten-free was a dense, brownie-like wedge resting on squiggles of chocolate sauce and piped pillows of whipped cream.

The dessert that had heads turning in the restaurant was our fried dough triangles, which will make you think of state fairs and the Ocean City boardwalk. This one gets special treatment with glistening melted butter and a dusting of sweet powdered sugar.

Ristorante Firenze may be far from Little Italy, but the Leonardis continue a tradition of family recipes and hospitality for the next generation. Larry Leonardi's wife, Kelly, makes the restaurant's pasta, and his son, Zachary, is the chef. Says Leonardi, "It's a big family affair."

Ristorante Firenze

Rating: ¿¿¿1/2

Where: 2 Hanover Road, Reisterstown

Contact: 410-394-5577, eatfirenze.com

Open: 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. Friday-Saturday; check holiday hours

Prices: Appetizers, $8 to $13; entrees, $11 to $27; desserts, $6.25 to $7.45.

Food: Italian

Noise/TVs: Not overly loud; one TV, turned off, in a dining room that can serve as a meeting room; three in the lounge area.

Service: Friendly

Parking: Free lot, street

Special diets: The kitchen can accommodate diners with dietary needs.

Reservation policy: Reservations are accepted.

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