Raphael's, 411 S. High St., (410) 727-4235. Open every day for lunch and dinner. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: no. Prices: appetizers, $5.75-$8.75; entrees, $10.25-$17.75.
Raphael's has just about everything going for it.
It has a great location. (Sure, there's a lot of competition in Little Italy, but restaurant owners say it just brings more people to the neighborhood. There are plenty of customers to go around.)
It has history. Raphael Nini first opened a restaurant at this same address in 1946. After it closed in the late '70s, he ran it as a pub. Now his grandchildren have turned it into a full-service restaurant again.
It has Ed Rogers in the kitchen, whose credentials include a stint as head chef at Gianni's Harborplace. He's a good cook.
It has waiters who fall all over themselves to satisfy your every whim.
What it doesn't have is customers, at least the night we were there. Once one of the owners had finished his dinner and left, we were the only people in the dining room.
I'm not sure why that is, but I do know we almost turned around and didn't go in because of the paper signs plastered on the door and window saying: "Lunch" and "Dinner" and "Now open." They make the place look like a luncheonette from the outside.
Inside, though, is a pretty little dining room with walls sponge-painted cream, Williamsburg blue trim, blond wood furniture, and a few details (mostly cherubs) in honor of a more well-known Raphael. It's not filled with Italian restaurant cliches, and the same could be said of the menu.
Oh, you can get veal saltimbocca and fettuccine Alfredo here; but salmone al cartoccio, salmon with crisp vegetables and dill cooked in parchment, is more in the spirit of the kitchen.
Don't get the wrong idea. This isn't diet food. A specialty of the house is Gorgonzola bread, a sort of Italian fondue. Half a loaf of Italian bread is drizzled with garlicky olive oil, then a thick Gorgonzola cream sauce is ladled over it. It's too much of everything for me, but apparently it's one of the most popular dishes Raphael's serves.
I like to get my calories more subtly, as in ravioli con avagoe alla calamari, which can be had as a first course. The black squid ink pasta stuffed with lobster looks wonderfully dramatic against its blush-pink lobster sauce -- a sauce so delicate and creamy it upstaged the good but somewhat chewy pasta.
You can try several first courses at once by getting frutti de mare antipasti. It includes two baked clams, two baked oysters and two artichoke bottoms stuffed with crab meat. This last is the standout, with the vinegary artichokes a good foil for the large lumps of crab. But the clams were small, rubbery and tasted of nothing much but garlic and bread crumbs. While the oysters were better, their bread-crumb topping also did nothing for them.
By the time you read this, the shad special will probably no longer be available, and that's too bad. It showed that the kitchen knows how to treat fish. The fresh fillet was rich and moist, a marvelous contrast to the two slices of crisp bacon on top. Sprinkled with pine nuts and sauced with lemon and butter, it couldn't have been better.
Pine nuts showed up again in chicken Sarah, a good boneless chicken breast sauteed with sun-dried tomatoes, pepperoncini and a bit of goat cheese. It and our third entree were more than adequate, although neither had the knock 'em-dead quality of the shad.
Raphael's offers the traditional veal dishes, but the specialty is an appealing combination of tender veal scallops and shrimp in a delicate white wine sauce, topped with sauteed mushrooms and artichokes.
Dinners include a starch and vegetable, and that starch isn't necessarily a side of spaghetti and tomato sauce. The veal came with small boiled potatoes, the chicken with garlicky couscous, and the shad with rice. The shad was also arranged on a bed of perfectly cooked and seasoned fresh spinach; with the veal and chicken came fresh broccoli dusted with Parmesan. If you want a salad, try the insalata Raphael made of romaine, Belgian endive, radicchio, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes and a good Italian dressing (although I could have done with less dried oregano).
Tiramisu, the moist combination of spongecake and mascarpone cheese, is the dessert to order here. Soft and deceptively light, it's actually extraordinarily rich, with intense flavors of Kahlua and espresso. There are also the traditional rum cake and cannoli, plus a St. Honore -- a combination of cream puff, chocolate mousse and cake.
All in all, a satisfying meal. One thing would have improved it tremendously: better Italian bread. (The Gorgonzola bread didn't count. It was a meal in itself.) You do have a good alternative, though. Raphael's offers homemade focaccia for a couple of dollars extra.