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At Station North's Orto, Italian food is guilt-free

Orto, meaning “vegetable garden” in Italian, opened in February in a cozy, plant-filled Station North spot formerly home to Colette and Bottega. The menu, hung in the window, is notable for what it’s missing: Familiar items like eggplant parm, spaghetti and pizza — all but required eating in most of Baltimore’s Italian restaurants — are nowhere to be found.

Instead, chef Stefano Porcile, who helped open Colette and worked at Bottega when it was on Maryland Avenue, charts a riskier course. He aims to offer slightly lighter fare than is served at other restaurants. He doesn't want you grabbing for the Tums when you leave.

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Start off with conservas ($5), which include pickled vegetables like mushrooms in vinegar and roasted rainbow carrots. They’re kept in jars in the dining room, and staff spoon them out into little bowls. It’s a light snack, perfect with a cocktail, that leaves room for the dishes to come.

As for cocktails: My companions enjoyed the Melancholia, made with absinthe and rosemary, and the By Jove, which incorporates an Italian liqueur made from green walnuts. All cocktails are $13.

The menu is divided into three courses — piccolo, medio and principale. The beet plate ($13), a piccolo, is unmissable. Garnished with watermelon radishes and parsley, it was as delectable to look at as it was to eat. You’ll want to ask for bread to soak up the pistachio cream beneath it.

To novices, the castelfranco and treviso salad ($14), with its brilliant, purple radicchio, could come as a shock in its bitterness, even with the addition of feta. But Porcile doesn’t shy away from unusual flavors. Fennel is a recurring theme on the menu, adding an aromatic crunch to everything from fish to carrots. Peas, too, make multiple appearances.

On our server’s recommendation we tried the pea agnolotti ($17). The wrapper was light and perfectly cooked, topped with pancetta, peas and cheese. But there’s only so much fun you can have with a pea filling.

There are some decadent choices for those intent on indulging. During a second visit, we were thankful our waiter recommended the cacio e pepe arancini ($14), rice balls fried up and topped with cilantro and pickled peppers. They get a light dusting from Maldon sea salt flakes, a luxury salt brand that counts Gwyneth Paltrow among its fans. In case you need a reminder that you are Not At Olive Garden Anymore.

The meal proceeded at a leisurely pace, with long pauses between courses. It’s not the kind of place for a quick bite before catching a movie at the neighboring Charles or Parkway theaters. Better, instead, to go after the film, when you have time to linger.

For principale dishes, we enjoyed the branzino ($32), grilled to perfection and served with head and tail intact for extra drama. The lamb mixed grill ($33) was served with yogurt sauce and peas, with some of the most fantastic potatoes we’ve had in ages. They’re boiled with aromatics until creamy, smashed then deep-fried while still whole and lathered in salsa verde.

Diners understandably go gaga for the bone-in chicken Milanese ($23), hammered down like schnitzel, breaded and fried. Large enough to share, it’s accompanied by deconstructed Caesar salad and a charred lemon, which adds an acidic balance. The dish is a nod to Porcile’s Italo-Peruvian roots. During the 1970s, Porcile says, Peruvian butchers used to sell chicken with the bone intact to prove it was really chicken.

Porcile, then, serves his chicken Milanese with the bone — though it takes much longer to prepare.

“Cooks and chefs are weird people,” he said. “We do things a certain way because we feel it’s the way it ought to be done.”

One minor quibble: We’ve been hoping to try the blood orange tart for months, after hearing rave reviews from a coworker. But the dish got the ax during a recent menu revision and Porcile says there are no plans to bring it back.

So we settled for the chocolate semifreddo and olive oil gelato. The latter, already popular in Italy, was a revelation. The fattiness and flavor of the olive perfectly augments the creamy gelato.

During a recent visit, a woman sitting next to us devoured her dessert of marscarpone panna cotta, topped with a luxurious layer of tangy rhubarbs and fresh pistachios.

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It’s “not too sweet,” she told her server. “So you don’t feel too guilty.”

“You should never feel guilty,” the server responded.

Orto

Rating: 4 stars

Where: 1709 N. Charles St., Station North

Contact: 443-759-7200, ortobaltimore.com

Open: Nightly, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Prices: Appetizers $12-$17; Entrees $24-$33

Food: Elevated Italian cuisine

Noise/TVs: No televisions; conversation is easy.

Service: Welcoming and knowledgeable

Parking: Street

Special diets: Can be accommodated.

Reservation policy: Accepts reservations.

Handicap accessible: Yes

[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]

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