Daniela Useli joined the ranks of Baltimore's family-owned Italian restaurants in 2011 when she opened tiny Daniela Pasta & Pastries in the heart of Hampden.
She brought a Sardinian twist to town, adding her own touches to pasta dishes such as ravioli and lasagna, and to sweet treats like tiramisu and sugar-sprinkled palmier cookies — recipes she learned from her grandmother and great-grandmother.
Useli, a native Sardinian who came to Baltimore in 2000, outgrew the original space where customers ordered at a counter, so she moved the restaurant a couple of blocks down The Avenue. She opened a larger trattoria in April with a cozy porch for outdoor dining, a liquor license and her signature chef statue welcoming guests.
A nephew, Luca Useli, manages the restaurant, and a son, Stefano, waits tables along with other staff. They treat guests like family, checking to make sure you are having a good time and enjoying the food.
The townhouse space has several intimate dining rooms with brick walls, Old World decoupage, murals, fireplace mantels and blue sateen table linens. We sat at a table in the front room with a view of the street.
The wine list complements the food, with Sardinia and many other Italian regions represented. We enjoyed a full-bodied Marramiero Dama Montepulciano from Abruzzo.
The names of the dishes on the menu are in Italian; the descriptions give English speakers the real scoop. For instance, zuppa di granchio is simply crab soup — and quite a good one. It's not Maryland-style. It's a tomato-laced bisque, thick with claw meat.
There are three antipasto plates. We chose "di terra," featuring the products of land animals instead of vegetables or seafood.
Our appetizer displayed Italian salami shaped like horns of plenty and stuffed with olives, folds of thin prosciutto and pleasantly grainy cheeses. The plate was freshly made and a lovely starter to share with the table.
We also enjoyed a Caprese salad, which handled nonsummer tomatoes diplomatically. Halved, ripe grape tomatoes, swabbed with an aromatic extra virgin olive oil, were strewn with mozzarella balls the size of big marbles and flecks of basil leaves.
When we ordered our main courses, our waiter stressed that Sardinian gnocchi is different from what we might expect. It's made from semolina flour, not potatoes, resulting in a shell-shaped pasta instead of tiny dumplings.
We liked Daniela's version a lot. The doughy pasta nuggets were tossed with tomato sauce, chunks of spicy sausage and sharp Pecorino cheese for hearty comfort food.
The fettuccine with slices of zucchini and plump shrimp was another good decision. The al dente pasta was heady with garlic cloves and tomatoes.
The portions are huge and, with most of the pasta dishes priced under $20, a bargain.
Another dish featured three succulent rib chops stacked over soft, chunky potatoes tossed with too much olive oil. The menu described the spuds as being served in a green sauce, but they didn't appear or taste that way. The sparse dusting of chopped parsley was more like a garnish.
Daniela takes the "Pastries" part of its name seriously. Useli's creations are captivating.
The cappuccino tiramisu was a layered cloud of whipped ricotta, ladyfingers soaked in espresso and a finishing shower of cinnamon.
The millefoglie al cioccolato shone with flaky sheets of golden pastry stacked with a rich chocolate filling and draped with chocolate sauce in addition to chocolate squiggles on the plate.
The panna cotta was the only dessert that didn't reach the caliber of the others. The chilled custard, surprisingly served in a plastic container, was good enough, but the soupy, overly sweet raspberry sauce detracted from the overall composition of the dish.
That glitch won't keep us from being repeat diners at Daniela. The warmth and sincerity of the Useli family impressed us throughout our meal. Good food is essential for a positive dining experience, but a caring ambience is like finding gold.