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The original Cafe Troia opened officially as a full cafe in 1992 but had operated for several years before that as an Italian grocery with a few tables.

Cafe Troia was something new for Towson, a quiet, relaxing and sophisticated space for enjoying well-prepared Northern Italian cuisine that had a certain panache other restaurants in its category lacked. The thing about Cafe Troia was that you always knew you were in good hands.

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The restaurant has been in its current Allegheny Avenue location since 2008, a considerably bigger space than its original home right across the street. It has since been expanded to include a 32-seat deck and a 70-seat courtyard.

After more than 20 years of operation, Cafe Troia is not exactly a secret. But people still speak of it that way.

"We love that place," people told me when they heard I was reviewing it. "I hope you like it," they said, and they told me about their favorites — the osso buco, which they said is impossibly tender, and the pappardelle Bolognese, which they insisted was the best in town.

I did like Cafe Troia, and those claims of quality are on the mark. The fare at Cafe Troia is robust and full of good, simple flavors, the hallmark of Northern Italian cuisine. And there is still the finesse that first captivated diners.

If one thing had been missing, after so many years, it was the possibility for surprise. Diners want comfort and familiarity, but they also want at least the possibility of something new. And so the restaurant's owners, Carol Troia and Lisa Martin Troia, who are mother and daughter, have recently brought on Giovanni Leopardi, a native of Turin, Italy, as their new executive chef.

And, with Leopardi in place, Cafe Troia has been gently nudging itself into a more contemporary dining territory.

Leopardi's resume includes work all over the globe, and he is comfortable working in and out of the Northern Italian genre. His caretaking of Cafe Troia's traditional cuisine is impressive.

There are finely turned-out appetizers. I liked the play of flavors in the roasted calamari dish, served with a rather bold roasted garlic emulsion and fresh lemon juice. A serving of marinated white anchovies was freshened up with a tossing of giardiniera, a traditional Italian pickled-vegetable condiment. A mixed appetizer platter handsomely displayed a selection of imported meats and cheeses alongside freshly grilled slices of eggplant and zucchini.

The osso buco, a top-dollar item at many Northern Italian restaurants, is a triumph at Cafe Troia. A brilliantly bright gremolata — that piquant mix of parsley, lemon and garlic — dresses the tender roasted veal shank, which is perched atop a bed of an aromatic saffron risotto. And the bolognese is divine, nothing but ribbons of al dente pasta tossed with a gorgeous and assertively seasoned tomato-based sauce of veal, lamb and pork.

You get a better sense of what Leopardi is capable of on the specials list, which tempts with things like grilled romaine with fresh pears and Gorgonzola and tambaqui ribs, a Brazilian fish dish served with chimmichurri sauce.

We went for another fish dish, a filet of South American corvina, which Leopardi pan sears and sprinkles with a vivid puree of sweet bell peppers. This was a delightful dish, notwithstanding a somewhat baffling addition of a broccolini "cake," a mound of chopped green vegetable that added little to the dish.

A pasta special was a fresh take on a puttanesca, the humble preparation of tomatoes, olives and garlic. The inspired addition were morsels of monkfish, the "poor man's lobster," which made the dish seem like the work of a chef who takes his inspiration from the freshest available ingredients.

All of this good food is served cheerfully by a well-trained staff in a comfortable atmosphere. Cafe Troia is one of the rare restaurants that has no music in the main dining room, and dinner here is relaxing and civilized.

You'll want to stay for dessert, where the main attractions are the tiramisu, which Cafe Troia makes with ladyfingers and a jolt of espresso-flavored cream, and a lemon napoleon, a skillful layering of flaky pastry and smooth lemon curd.

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Are Troia's looks a little faded? I think they are. It's not like a complete overhaul is called for, but I wouldn't be sorry to see some freshly upholstered banquettes and a more lively arrangement of tables in the main dining room.

Mostly at Cafe Troia, though, there remains the feeling of being in good hands.

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Nearby on Dish Baltimore: Towson Restaurant Reviews

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