Change is afoot in Fells Point. Old bars are closing, new places are opening, and Harbor East and Canton seem to be extending their shiny tentacles into the historic neighborhood.
There's a lot of energy, especially in anticipation of Kevin Plank's forthcoming Sagamore Pendry Baltimore hotel, scheduled to open next year at the Recreation Pier. And that was the draw Sam Curreri needed to locate his second restaurant, Sammy's Enoteca, on South Broadway.
"The future, it's pretty good there," said Curreri. "It's far enough away from my Mount Vernon restaurant to not compete with myself."
Curreri has operated his original restaurant, Sammy's Trattoria, on North Charles Street since 2006. While both Sammy's locations specialize in homemade Italian dishes, the Enoteca has more small plates and salads, like a kale preparation with oranges, shaved almonds, Gorgonzola and a creamy Italian dressing.
And in accordance with the name, "Enoteca," which loosely means a wine bar in the United States, the restaurant offers ample glasses and bottles of Italian vino, from bubbly Prosecco to full-bodied Nebbiolo.
Cocktails include a "saucetini" with vodka, house pomodoro sauce and vermouth, and a Negroni with gin, Campari and Italian vermouth.
Whether you settle in with your drink at the stainless-steel bar or at one of the wood tables, you won't feel like you're at one of Fells Point's dive bars. Sammy's Enoteca has stylish, minimalist decor reminiscent of today's nouveau bistros, with a concrete floor, gleaming windows, white subway tiles and charcoal walls. An open kitchen stretches across the back of the space, and the bar is set against a wall.
The restaurant seats about 100 and includes three communal tables, handcrafted locally by Patti Fradkin, among its other seating arrangements. It's a great place to escape the hustle and bustle of Fells Point.
It can get loud inside the dining area with all the hard surfaces, but the restaurant offers its own camaraderie with an amiable staff. On our visit, the personable bartender was entertaining patrons at the bar with Thin Mint shots and other drinks of the day.
Our down-to-earth waitress shared how much she's learned about Italian food, wines and their various pronunciations while working at Sammy's. She's still learning. At one point, she brought us the wrong pasta order, but she quickly and graciously remedied the situation.
Many of the appetizers are hearty enough to be a meal. Uncle Tony's eggplant Parmesan was a plate-size portion of tender eggplant doused with cheese and a thick tomato sauce.
This is a traditional dish at its best and is named after the relative of one of Sammy's customers.
Another dish, the risotto with wild mushrooms and a hint of black truffle, was lovely. The thick slabs of spicy sausage crisscrossing the top were a surprise. It's a lot of meat for such a delicate preparation, though the big-time meat eater in our group didn't mind at all.
The plump meatballs — a mix of veal, pork, beef and Gorgonzola — were terrific. I was just sorry there were only two.
Entrees are just as bountiful as the starters. We appreciated the textural addition of cannellini beans to the flavorful orecchiette laced with pleasantly bitter broccoli raab, roasted garlic and thick rounds of sausage.
I recommend the broccoli raab as a side dish, minus the pasta and meat. I paired it with the restaurant's red snapper Francese, a wonderful fillet draped in a lemony white-wine sauce that made me want to lick the plate.
The duck ravioli was really good. The green spinach pasta squares were balanced with salty pecorino, a brown-butter sage sauce and three-hour-roasted duck meat perfumed with rosemary.
The desserts are as homey as the rest of the menu. The affogato in a glass mug was a satisfying end, with vanilla bean ice cream, hot espresso, whipped cream and shaved chocolate. We liked it just the way it was, but you can dress it up with a drizzle of your favorite liqueur.
The filling for the cannoli is made in house. The sweet whipped ricotta with mini chocolate chips was stuffed into a crunchy pastry shell for an excellent version of the Italian dessert.
A square of tiramisu was layered goodness, with sponge cake, mascarpone and a thin sheen of chocolate glazing.
While Fells Point adapts to a new infusion of entrepreneurship, Sammy's Enoteca has placed itself strategically for success. Its fun atmosphere and solid Italian food are the icing on the cake.