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It used to be Alberto's, now it's Arturo's Trattoria

The shopping center that houses Arturo's Trattoria is not nondescript. It is downright ugly.

Back when this Crain Highway shopping center was home to Trattoria Alberto, it acquired an almost legendary status for being amazingly uninviting — and that added to the restaurant's cachet. "You'd never know it was there," people liked to say. For almost 30 years, Baltimore-area diners kept claiming to have discovered the polished charms of Alberto Contestabile's out-of-the-way trattoria.

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Contestabile closed his trattoria in December, and not long after, word came that the space would reopen under new ownership.

Arturo Ottaviano, owner of the popular and stylish Osteria 177 in Annapolis, opened his new restaurant in the space in September. It was a return for him to Crain Highway — he was a manager at Alberto's before opening Osteria 177.

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Arturo's Trattoria has undergone mostly cosmetic changes in the main dining room, which is basically a long rectangle. Sunny Tuscan colors of burnt orange and copper have replaced muddy, muted tones. Tan tablecloths have replaced the old white ones. Fussy things, such as vases with fake flowers, have been removed. Everything is softer. Even the paintings on the walls look nicer, classier, like you've wandered into a better period of art history.

The menu at Arturo's Trattoria is similar but not identical to that at Osteria 177. Ottaviano has brought favorites such as the grilled fresh calamari appetizer, the Genoa-style cioppino and the duck breast stuffed with fresh dates in port wine sauce. The menu at Arturo's is bigger, though, with more pasta options and more seafood choices.

If people loved to rave about the old Trattoria Alberto, they never pretended it was a bargain. It was pretty expensive, actually. Arturo's Trattoria is, too. There are plenty of options in the mid-$20s, ones featuring swordfish, salmon, veal scaloppine or sauteed chicken breast. But the menu also offers a $42 grilled marinated rib-eye and four preparations of veal rib chop, also known as veal rib-eye, all priced between $58 or $60. Wowza.

But Arturo's isn't programmed to empty your bank account. For example, there are splurges on the wine list, but also affordable wines by the glass and bottle.

We had hearty, robust and well-prepared food at Arturo's. Appetizers deliver assertive pleasure, and we found a few that we loved. Mushroom caps stuffed with imported Italian cheeses and broiled until bubbly are earthy, robust delights. Clams and mussels, fresh and healthy-looking, are served simply in bright and zesty marinara sauce. Delicate, rosy whorls of beef carpaccio, sliced from the tenderloin, are topped with shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano and capers.

Dishes of homemade pasta are divine. We loved an old Osteria 177 favorite, sachetti di pasta ai porcini, little pear- and ricotta-filled satchels bathed in Gorgonzola cream sauce, and a special menu offering pumpkin ravioli in a savory sage and Parmesan sauce.

Arturo's is the kind of place where diners come for the classics. There's an art to doing dishes like veal scaloppine and shrimp scampi right. The chef must appear to be doing nothing but allowing good ingredients to speak for themselves. It's hard work.

Of the entrees, we liked best the scampi dorati, firm jumbo shrimp made golden by sauteing them in a delicate preparation of egg batter and lemon sauce. In a veal Marsala, the cutlet was mild and tender and the wine sauce sweet without being cloying.

We also tried one of the veal rib chops, the costoletta di vitello al porcini. This thing was a beauty, covered with sauteed mushrooms and herbs, and it tasted marvelous.

Dessert is not Arturo's strong suit. The list is rattled off without enthusiasm, and diners end up with OK versions of tiramisu and creme brulee.

We visited Arturo's Trattoria twice and found it humming along nicely both times. There were medium-size, multigenerational family gatherings, couples and small groups of businessmen. Most of the diners seemed to be familiar to the staff, who on both visits were being supported by Mauro Seghieri, the restaurant's co-owner, who was deftly working the room.

We wondered who these diners were, and later learned that some were former regulars at Trattoria Alberto. Some were fans of Osteria 177, checking out Ottaviano's new restaurant. Some were both.

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Everyone looked content. I think they will be telling their friends about a great new Italian restaurant in a shabby little shopping center on Crain Highway.

"You'd never know it was there," they'll say.

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