Since its opening in October 2007, Cinghiale has been in a state of change.
Sometimes the changes seemed like progress, sometimes irresolution. Looking back now, all of those fits and starts — all of the format switches, uniform overhauls and menu massaging — look like the deliberate acts of patient and wise restaurateurs.
There are only a handful of places in Baltimore where I'd rather be on a Saturday night, and two of them are operated by Tony Foreman and Cindy Wolf, the forces behind this rewarding Harbor East restaurant.
Cinghiale was the fourth restaurant from Foreman-Wolf, as the company is now known, arriving after Charleston, Petit Louis and Pazo. Elements that worked from the first day — the spectacular wine program, the diligent service, the glorious charcuterie and the ravishing setting — are still operating confidently. But now, the works-in-progress have reached completion, and the distractions have been dealt with.
Always, there was a weird tension about what Cinghiale calls the Osteria and the Enoteca. They were intended to be separate concepts under the same roof: the Osteria for serious dining, the more casual Enoteca for casual wine bar gatherings. No one cared. The menus overlapped uncomfortably and changed formats constantly. Now, a distinction between the two exists only in name and setting, and the menu selection is the same throughout Cinghiale.
Now a single sheet presents two basic thematic groupings, one for diners seeking the bold and the new, and the other for those wanting Italian-kitchen comfort. Either side can be approached as a fixed-price menu or a la carte, but it's much easier now to construct a traditionally presented meal.
There's another, more substantial change. Julian Marucci, the young chef who has been with Cinghiale almost since the start, has found his voice.
From the get-go, Marucci was encouraged by Foreman-Wolf to immerse himself in the vernacular of northern Italian cooking. It was impressive how quickly Marucci reached proficiency, but now there's more — there's an artist working with confidence and brio.
For the diner at Cinghiale, there's the real delight that comes when a chef starts to build on a foundation of knowledge.
Marucci is now presenting dishes that go beyond the expected into the dazzling, like a pan-seared foie gras served with kumquats and Sicilian pistachios, and a soup made from local turnips with a black-garlic puree, and bread dumplings. None of these feels borrowed, or even indirectly inspired by northern Italian cuisine. They feel like things Marucci invented. They are all beautifully and simply presented with a minimum of fuss, and they all deliver complex and surprising flavors.
Cinghiale's menu now makes it easier to make discoveries, like the deceptively humble Toc in Braide, a polenta dish that Marucci changes up each week with prime ingredients like imported cheese, black truffle oil, white asparagus and even snails. This, you'll think while eating it, is something for people who enjoy food.
Marucci has developed a reliable sense of balance and proportion. Perfectly handled, a pan-seared Norwegian steelhead salmon offers deep, buttery flavor. Served by itself, it would be a delight, but accompanied by a sunny saffron sauce and a fragrant almond-mint pesto, it becomes memorable dining. The same with the Wagyu steak, which the kitchen has seasoned with care and confidence, and plated with an impeccable hollandaise sauce and brussels sprouts flecked with guanciale, a bacon made from pig jowls.
Marucci also knows when to pull back. Something as fundamentally delicious as Cinghiale's rabbit leg confit calls for a more modest plating, and that's what it's given — a subtle celery root risotto and black trumpet mushrooms.
Pleasurably, the menu balances these attention-riveting items with others that seem effortless. Among these are an appetizer of octopus sauteed with potatoes, celery and sweet peppers; squid ink pasta tossed with succulent lobster, chilies and scallions; or a big bowl of spaghetti tossed with a fresh white-wine garlic sauce and capers and ringed with pink, pink Pacific shrimp.
These are good times at Cinghiale. A confident wait staff knows that incoming diners have been treated well, every step of the way, by the Cinghiale's reservation team, valets, hosts and bar staff, and that a bus staff will be around to present fresh bread and good olive oil.
Everyone at Cinghiale, in fact, can depend on expertise from everyone else. The salumeria station prepares charcuterie orders with concern and flair, and deftly assembles a sterling appetizer of bruschetta, topped here with things like local brussels spouts and pancetta or bresaola with endive mostarda. Dessert keeps diners engaged to the very end. A torta of pistachio buttercream and white chocolate ganache, served with cherry gelato, is luscious and lovely. The espresso-rich tiramisu at Cinghiale is — a rarity for the tired dessert — actually very good.
The things that always worked at Cinghiale look even better now. Know that Patrick Sutton's interior spaces remain seriously gorgeous. But now, with the blurring of Enoteca and Osteria, diners are free to choose the atmosphere, clamorous or subdued, to suit their moods. And the wine list, assembled by Foreman, remains a model of approachability, good taste and universal appeal. Wines by the bottle range from $18 to $2,850, and there are more than 50 wines by the glass, available in 6- or 3-ounce pours.