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Pisco, new Peruvian restaurant, still settling in

The casual Italian restaurant Facci was one of the first, best surprises of this dining decade.

Located in an obscure Fulton strip mall, Facci wasn't out to reinvent Italian cuisine, but it was what hungry diners in the southwest part of Howard County had been hunting for: a nice-looking place that serves decent food. Facci, which opened in the spring of 2010, caught on quickly, and the restaurant's owners, chef Gino Palma and his wife, Pilar, opened a second Facci in 2013 at Turf Valley Towne Square in nearby Ellicott City. The second Facci was an instant hit, too.

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This summer, the Palmas opened their third restaurant, Pisco, which unlike Facci, is not Italian — it's Peruvian. Also, unlike Facci, Pisco didn't open with that sweet smell of success.

The restaurant, which is named for a strong Peruvian brandy-like spirit, is wobbly in its early days, and things aren't quite adding up. The owners have said they are pursuing a liquor license, but for now Pisco is operating as a BYOB. That wouldn't necessarily be a problem, except that Pisco has the sleek, supper-club looks of a place where you'd expect to find a drink. We did bring our own wine, but, as is the restaurant's policy, we had to open and pour it ourselves.

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For now, Pisco is using its fancy U-shaped bar up front as a ceviche bar, where customers can, in theory, watch Pisco's chefs prepare 10 variations of the marinated seafood dish. No one, though, was preparing ceviche at the bar on either of our two visits. And when you think about it, why would someone be? Ceviche isn't prepared to order like sushi.

We tried a few variations of Pisco's ceviche; the descriptions of the "tradicional" and Amazonico preparations made them sound like they'd be different enough to enjoy comparing and contrasting them. But they were pretty much the same, with slightly different garnishes. The ceviche preparations we tried had assertive flavor and spicing, but the presentation lacked finesse. The fish, especially, was sliced too thickly. Also, some of the listed ingredients, such as the mango in the Amazonico, were not present.

That kind of thing happened a few other times, too. Our server told us that the shrimp in the camarones al Pisco appetizer wouldn't be jumbo, as the menu says. Fair enough; we ordered it anyway. The problem with the shrimp, it turned out, wasn't their size. They were overcooked. Another appetizer, the causa tradicion limena, described as a layering of mashed potato with whipped tuna and avocado, arrived without avocado, which was too bad, because it was otherwise one of the more interesting dishes we tried.

Potatoes are a big deal in Peru, and they show up on Pisco's menu grilled, mashed, boiled, diced and cut into fries. Sometimes potatoes are impersonated by other things such as plantains and especially yuca, which are mashed with blue cheese to wonderful effect for a delicious side dish.

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Peruvian cuisine is just plain interesting — there are Italian and Asian influences in both flavors and format, as in the popular fried-rice dish called chaufa, which can be an aromatic delight. But at Pisco, it was not interesting. It was underwhelming. The chicken was overcooked, and the flavors monotonous.

Another Peruvian standard, the lomo saltado, a stir-fry of sirloin steak with onions and tomatoes, was serviceable, but like a lot of Pisco's food, not subtle. An entree of short ribs in a dark coffee sauce presented chewy meat in a weak sauce. An entree-sized seafood soup, the parihuela pisco, was way too salty. The lenguado pisco, a flounder fillet in a sauce of pisco and bittersweet mustard, made us think of boring wedding food.

Desserts are bland or else very sweet things such as rice pudding with raisins, a passion fruit mousse, which had the taste of a packaged product, and mazamorra morada, a traditional dessert made from purple Peruvian corn that tasted like a homework assignment in language class.

I hope Pisco, though it's been open since August, is still in a transitional phase. I'd like to think that it can do better.

Pisco

Rating: 1.5

Where: 6630 Marie Curie Drive, Elkridge

Contact: 410-312-4888, piscorestaurante.com

Open: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays

Prices: Appetizers: $8-$13; entrees: $16-$19

Food: Traditional and contemporary Peruvian cuisine

Service: Sincere and helpful.

Parking: Plenty of parking on the shopping center lot.

Outdoor seating: Covered seating on an outdoor patio in nice weather.

Children: Menu options include chicken tenders and fish nuggets.

Special diets: The kitchen can make some adjustments where possible.

Noise level/televisions: Five televisions in the bar area have their sound muted.

[Key: Superlative: 5; Excellent: 4; Very Good: 3; Good: 2; Promising: 1]

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