Sabatino's, 901 Fawn St., (410) 727-9414. Open every day for lunch and dinner. Major credit cards accepted. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: no. Prices: appetizers, $4-$13.50; entrees, $8.95-$33. After going to all the upscale Italian cafes that have opened up in the area, it was time for a reality check. And that meant heading for little Italy, for the kind of southern Italian food that probably most of the population of Baltimore still prefers.
It's no longer fair to lump Little Italy restaurants together. Some are quite chic, and some serve excellent regional fare. But many of them are very much the same places I ate at 25 years ago when I first moved to Baltimore (except, of course, more expensive).
The best of them, like Sabatino's, have an extraordinary quality in common. You can like the place and have a fine time -- whether the food is good or not.
It starts when you walk in the front door and are guided effortlessly to your table, through a series of intimate rooms. Sabatino's is a huge restaurant, but you're never conscious of it because the dining rooms are small. These are inviting, soothing rooms, done in soft, dusty pinks, taupes and cream. The lighting is gentle and the chairs are comfortable.
You're likely to have the thrill of sitting next to a local television personality or politicians who have been going to Sabatino's forever. The rooms are always full of people, and everybody is having a good time.
Except the restaurant critic, who wants to love this nice restaurant and is not happy that the bread is stale.
After a complaint, the waitress amiably replaces it with marginally fresher bread; but since it isn't very good bread to begin with, I'm still unhappy. Especially because I have before me a bottle of excellent, moderately priced Chianti that cries out for some decent bread.
Nor do the clams casino that arrive soon after cheer me up: The bread-crumb topping is nicely seasoned, but it can't disguise the unpleasant flavor of the clams. A half-order of linguine with red clam sauce is respectable in spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that the minced clams aren't much of a presence in the sauce.
A first course of prosciutto and melon starts with perfect slices of honeydew, sweetly flavorful and dripping with juice. But wrapped around them are thick, and therefore tough, slices of the peppery Italian ham, which should have been cut paper-thin.
Only a cup of homey Italian egg drop soup is flawless, because it starts with a superb homemade chicken broth, exquisitely rich and seasoned perfectly -- a wonderful foil for the eggy balls that float in it.
Nor does the salad that comes with dinner make me happy, partly because I disapprove of having to pay an extra 50 cents for the house dressing, but mostly because the salad's chief virtue seems to be that it contains a full head of iceberg lettuce. Plus a whole sliced onion, with one radish, one black olive and one cherry tomato. The dressing -- oil, vinegar, cheese and heavy seasonings -- looks like it's been put through the blender ++ and isn't 50 cents better than the other choices. (That's my guess, although, of course, I haven't tasted them.)
The shrimp in shrimp Renato have been put in a casserole dish with a winy, buttery sauce, mozzarella and prosciutto and cooked for so long they have the texture of rubber bands. Homemade cheese ravioli are a little tough, but would be fine if they hadn't been drowned in oceans of marinara sauce.
Things look up a little with the braciola, the beef rolled around a stuffing of hard-boiled egg, bread crumbs and cheese, and made tender and flavorful with long, slow braising. And a veal chop is thick, tender, pink-white inside and juicy. I like the sauteed mushrooms on top, and I love the sauteed, diced potatoes, skins still on, served on the side.
Sabatino's makes an excellent decaffeinated cappuccino, a very good decaffeinated regular coffee and bitter decaffeinated espresso. Desserts are the standards, except for a super-rich chocolate cheesecake. The star is the tartufo, a molded ice cream covered with a thick chocolate shell. But the tiramisu and cannoli are worth ordering, too.
What you will notice about our meal is that there are no surprises here -- and this is true of just about the whole menu, which is quite long. There are no dishes that the waitress can say are uniquely Sabatino's, but you will find all the classics: veal saltimbocca, shrimp fra diavolo, chicken cacciatore and so on. My guess is that the regulars have found those dishes that work -- if everybody had our experience the place wouldn't be so crowded on a weekday night.
Next: Morgan Millard