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Piccolo Italiano Ristorante is not piccolo. It seats approximately 130 diners at about 30 tables, and the soft pink carpets, heavy curtains, brass railings and comfortable luxe suggest it enjoyed serious backing when it opened three years or so ago. By now, it has achieved a ranking among Annapolis' more valued restaurants.

Located in a small, modern shopping complex outside the center of town, Piccolo Italiano feels nonetheless urban. The service staff conveys a dignified level of formality, most diners seem to wear either dressy casual clothing or dresses and/or suits and ties, and a welcome absence of music makes it possible to converse without fighting background noise.

What's more, the chef, Jose Pinto, can cook. Formerly of Cantina d'Italia in Washington and Trattoria Alberto in Glen Burnie, he heads a kitchen that serves considerably better and more interesting Italian food than usual. The house salad is alone worth the trip to Annapolis.

The menu lists a number of dishes that sound pleasing and not routine, including, among antipastos, frog legs with garlic ($6.95) and shelled snails with olive oil, tomatoes, red pepper, garlic and parsley ($4.75); among pastas, fettuccine with crab meat, basil, tomato puree, parsley and red pepper ($10.95); and among entrees, vitello tonnato ($14.95) and diced chicken breast combined with mild Italian sausage and tomatoes in white wine ($10.95). Pasta dishes cost between $9 and $11; entrees, mostly between $11 and $15.

We began our meal with a bowl of minestrone ($3.25), a half-order of pappardelle alla ammiraglia ($5.95) and a half-order of fettuccine verdi al funghi ($5.95). Incidentally, is anyone else as bemused as I when a waiter says, "Good choice"? Waiters frequently say it, implying one has chosen from among winners and losers and gotten lucky. Do waiters ever say "Bad choice"? Couldn't the good choices be told ahead of time?

In any case, our idea and our waiter's idea of "a good choice" matched. The minestrone was thick and delicious with an unusual variety of fresh vegetables -- according to our inventory, carrots, green beans, celery, tomato, onion, fava beans and cabbage. Pappardelle are thin, light, impromptu pasta that resembles torn strips of airmail stationery. Folded loosely around small shrimp, rings of squid and fragments of clam, and bathed in a seafood brine, they would have made a lovely first course had the salt balance not been radically askew.

We had no doubts that the green fettuccine were made in-house, but some time between the cooking and the serving, they'd been left to sit, resulting in a too dense, insufficiently airy mat of noodles. Still, the mushrooms were wonderfully intense, and the pasta and the Parmesan were appealing in flavor.

We asked to have our house salads after our main courses, but our waiter said no, they must come before. We forgave him when we discovered Piccolo's serves the rare perfect salad, of garden lettuces, slivers of Belgian endive and radicchio, in a superb dressing softened by, we thought, wisps of egg. We had one problem. Eating it curbed our hunger.

But then two of our three entrees made lunch the next day. We didn't take home a faintly aging fillet of grouper, though it was beautifully sauced, with tomatoes, capers, pungent black olives and garlic ($14.95). We did take one of our two involtini alla Salernitana ($15.95), or veal rolls lined with mozzarella and cooked with mushrooms and peas, which looked, at first, like two fat sausages. Their pleasures were the goodness of mushrooms and thin sheets of meat enriched with molten, mild cheese. And we particularly relished the osso buco ($14.95) -- one giant and one baby slice of veal shank (and a large, shivery gem of marrow) cooked with sliced carrots and celery, tomatoes, herbs, garlic, onions and wine. All three entrees were served with fresh stumps of green bean mixed with ham and mushrooms.

Desserts were from Patisserie Poupon. A slice of three-layered chocolate raspberry cake ($3.25) tasted conventional, with medium-quality chocolate over a cake moistened with sugar syrup. A creme caramel ($3.25), on the other hand, was excellent.

In sum, Piccolo has the feel of a restaurant that's knowledgeable and consistent. To get there from U.S. 50, take Rowe Boulevard, turn right on Taylor Avenue, cross West Street, turn right on Spa Road, left on Forest Drive and go for about a block. It's an easy trip with obvious rewards.

' Next: Mediterranean



1410 Forest Drive, Annapolis, (301) 280-0400


Lunch Mondays to Fridays 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Mondays to Thursdays 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays until 10:30 p.m., Sundays 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.


FEATURES: Italian cuisine



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