The intersection of Cathedral and Read streets in Mount Vernon gives off something of a European vibe. Across from the old-world nobility of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Read Street takes an angle — creating a V-shaped corner dominated by a vintage, five-story edifice with an inward-inclining roof that can make you think of Paris.
And the first level of that corner building brings Italy to mind with the recent arrival of Piazza 27, which aims to evoke the atmosphere of an informal restaurant you might encounter in the central square — the “piazza’” — of an Italian town. A specific square, as it turns out.
The piazza in picturesque Monte di Procida along the Italian coast west of Naples is where Piazza 27 co-owner Antonio Chiaro hails from; pictures from that charming locale are printed on the menu.
“There is a lot of business there in the summer,” Chiaro says, “but the rest of the year, not so much.”
So he sought a place in this country where he could build an all-year business, and found in the Mount Vernon neighborhood the right vibes for Piazza 27. The restaurant offers an extensive menu at remarkably reasonable prices (a liquor license might be in the future; meanwhile, it’s BYOB).
You can get takeout or delivery here, but this is the kind of place where you feel like grabbing a table and lingering over a meal.
SCENE & DECOR: The pleasant dining area features high ceilings painted a rich blue, walls covered in warm shades of amber and burnt orange, and table tops with a rustic-wood look. It can get quite noisy with even a few boisterous types in the room, but tolerably so. There’s a neighborly feel to the place, underlined by the delightfully outgoing Chiaro.
APPETIZERS: The prospect of mozzarella sticks seemed like a yawner until we tasted the ones prepared here ($6.49); the surprising crunch of the exterior made all the difference. Also finding favor was the polpette casserole ($6.49), a pair of subtly seasoned meatballs baked with a fine tomato sauce, ricotta and smoked mozzarella.
ENTREES: The chicken saltimbocca ($14.49) proved to be a class act, even if the flavorful chicken was a bit outshone by the spaghetti it rested on — perfectly al dente and given a just-right toss in olive oil and Parmesan. It tasted as fresh as I envision a summer evening in Monte di Procida to be.
The baked ziti ($9.49) satisfied. The ricotta-mozzarella-parmigiano top was applied in moderation. Most importantly, the dish was not drenched in tomato sauce, which so many ostensibly Italian restaurants in this country turn into the Red Sea.
Pizzas can be outfitted with a sizable range of toppings, including several vegetarian options. We found the 3 Formaggi white pizza rewarding ($10.49 for 12-inch, $15.49 for 16-inch), not just for the fresh flavor of its three cheeses, but for the decorative flourish of the ricotta, piped like icing around the pie. The moderately thin crust fulfilled its supporting role solidly.
The margarita ($10.49 for 12-inch, $15.49 for 16-inch) would have pleased more with just the sliced tomato, mozzarella and basil, not the addition of tomato sauce. Chiaro said he would prefer to serve it that way, but has found that most pizza lovers here want it sauced.
In addition to stromboli, calzoni and subs, the menu offers panini choices that come with a snappy little green salad. In the Bravo panini ($8.49), sliced turkey breast, bacon, provolone, baby spinach, tomatoes and mayo make a hearty combo on excellent bread.
DESSERT: The tiramisu ($5.95) tasted light and lush. The excellent cannoli ($4.49) boasted a tangy ricotta filling and crisp shell. Both were served on plates with the visual flourish you expect from a restaurant charging much more.
DRINKS: Soft drinks (fountain or bottles); BYOB alcohol
SERVICE: You know the drill: Order at the counter; food will be delivered to your table. We received fresh plates and flatware between courses, a touch as welcome as it was unexpected in such a casual place. You can get unusually snazzy take-home containers, too.
Backstory: Co-owner Antonio Chiaro honed his culinary and business skills in his native Italy. He sought an opportunity to put those skills to use in this country (he has a relative in the restaurant business in Annapolis), and found what he was looking for at a Mount Vernon space that previously bore the names of Al Pacino Cafe and Kyro Pizza.
Signature dish: Chicken saltimbocca
Where: 900 Cathedral St.
Open: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 12 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
Credit cards: All major
Handicap accessible: No
Bottom line: The authentic Italian flair in the kitchen, the friendly service and the moderate prices make this a distinctive, welcome addition to the Mount Vernon dining scene.