Due, 25 Crossroads Drive, Owings Mills. (410) 356-4147. Open Mondays to Saturdays for lunch, every day for dinner. AE, MC, V. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: yes. Prices: appetizers, $3.95-$7.95; entrees, $13.95-$23.95.
When Linwood's, a successful, somewhat formal restaurant specializing in contemporary American cuisine, expanded into the space next door, it didn't simply add more tables. Linwood's Two, or Due (pronounce it Doo-A), is a quite different and separate restaurant -- even though the two spaces aren't completely separate. The food is casual and northern Italian; the only real point of similarity between the two is the killer desserts.
Linwood's is known for its splendid New York-style decor. The new restaurant, as you might expect, looks nothing like it. The entrance sets the tone, with its attractive "gourmet to go" section and a colorful mural of an Italian marketplace.
Depending on where you sit, the interior design works very well or not at all. If you have a view of the open kitchen with its wood-burning oven, copper pans, bunches of dried herbs and colorful ceramic plates, you'll love the rustic chic of the place. But from our table, we could see none of the elements that soften the impersonal, contemporary appointments -- the wall I faced, for instance, was decorated with a red smoke alarm rather than a handmade ceramic plate. (Not that I have anything against smoke alarms, mind you.)
Still, the food is pretty enough that you may not even notice the decor. Start with the picture-perfect bread, brought in a miniature wire basket: long, slender bread sticks made from pizza dough, dainty pieces of focaccia, and thin slices of whole-wheat baguette.
An antipasto misto was a mosaic of inventive offerings, all of them -- with one exception -- tasting as good as they looked.
Arranged on tissue-thin slices of prosciutto was a little wedge of a tender frittata surrounded by calamata olives ("The kitchen pitted them for me!" my friend said with delight), a flavorful caponata (eggplant relish), sweet roasted garlic cloves, a tomato and bread salad with fresh mozzarella and intriguingly seasoned red peppers. Only a bland puree of cannellini beans failed to please.
One of the most successful dishes we tried, "spicy clam roast with Tuscan sausages," sounded heavy and unappealing to me when my other friend ordered it. But the clams in their shells were plump and sweet, arranged in a bowl with thin slices of spicy sausage and a light sauce of fresh tomatoes and onions.
For our third appetizer, a lovely arrangement of grilled vegetables in autumn colors -- green and yellow squashes, red pepper, endive, onion and eggplant -- was drizzled with a lively balsamic vinaigrette.
You can split a gourmet pizza for a first course or have one as an entree. Due makes the kind of pizza I like best: a thin, crisp, irregular crust covered but not smothered with toppings. A well-balanced combination of cheeses, including fontina and Gorgonzola, was just about perfect, although I would have liked the pizza even better without the sweet caramelized onions.
So far we had loved everything. The vinaigrette on a salad of baby greens was a bit salty for me, particularly topped with a salty shaved Parmesan. But basically it was a fine salad, and we had had nothing to complain about. So I wasn't prepared for the crespelle, Italian pancakes rolled like crepes. Filled with chunks of braised duck, topped with mustard-preserved fruits and grated cheese, and sauced not at all, the doughy pancakes were almost inedible -- an unpleasant combination of things that just didn't work together.
A house specialty, Tuscan-style osso buco, lacked enough of the full-bodied sauce that veal shanks slow-cooked with vegetables sometimes have. Very little was served with them, so you felt you were eating just big hunks of stew meat. There's an easy fix for that, of course. Gremolada, the traditional garnish of parsley, garlic and lemon peel for osso buco, was incorporated into a side of coarsely mashed potatoes that were addictively good.
Due has other veal dishes to choose from, such as roasted veal tenderloin with golden raisins, balsamic vinegar and spinach. And there's also a limited number of carefully chosen chicken, seafood and beef selections. On the lighter side, you can get a range of pastas, from fettuccine with portobello mushrooms to baked penne with shrimp. And if you don't like this week's selections, come back next week. The menu will have changed.
One thing won't have changed. No matter how you've overindulged in pasta or pizza or gremolada potatoes, you'll surely be tempted by desserts like a semi-freddo, a wickedly rich frozen custard studded with pine nuts and arranged with a spoonful of burnt orange sauce. Or a dense chocolate cake made with ground hazelnuts instead of flour. Or a coffee-flavored creme brulee topped -- as if it needed to be topped with anything -- with whipped cream flavored with cinnamon. My one disappointment was that our waitress hadn't told us about the special pear dessert that has to be ordered 20 minutes in advance: Ask when you sit down. We didn't find out until we got the dessert menu, and by then we didn't feel like waiting.
' Next: Winterling's