Vito's Cafe, 10249 York Road, Scotts Corner Shopping Center, Cockeysville, (410) 666-3100. Open every day for lunch and dinner. Major credit cards. Appetizers, $5.25-$6.75; entrees, $6.75-$12.95. ***
Vito's doesn't look like it belongs in Little Italy. There's not a scrap of cozy kitsch in this strip-mall dining room, with its contemporary decor and forest green, peach and mauve color scheme. I defy you to guess this is an Italian restaurant when you walk in, although the alluring fragrance of garlic, oregano and pizza baking in a brick oven will give you a clue.
But if you love Little Italy restaurants, you'll love Vito's. The minute you open the menu you'll feel right at home -- even the typeface looks familiar. This isn't surprising when you consider that co-owner and executive chef Bruno Ferrante has worked at both Da Mimmo and Caesar's Den in Little Italy. And when the food arrives at your table, it may not be haute cuisine but it's good, fresh and moderately priced. Like your favorite Little Italy restaurant before it got so successful and prices went through the stratosphere. (This is a lot of generalizing about Little Italy, which now has its share of restaurants that don't fit the mold, but you know what I mean.)
Vito's is the kind of place you wish you had in your neighborhood so you could stop by after work for a quick dinner. There is a drawback: no liquor license. But the liquor store a couple of doors down will sell you a bottle of wine or beer for your pizza even on Sunday.
Speaking of pizza, Vito's has individual ones that you could split as a first course or have as a meal. The White Gourmet was wonderful, with a crunchy but tender crust, four different cheeses, including ricotta, fresh spinach and a few thin slices of fresh tomato.
The soup of the day was a richly flavorful but surprisingly delicate lentil and escarole. The kitchen did salt this and another dish or two more than I would, but it was still very good.
Don't expect chic food here (although that pizza came close): The perfect example of what I mean is the antipasto in gondola. A black olive and an artichoke heart on a toothpick were stuck on each wedge of lusciously ripe honeydew. Surrounding the melon "gondolas" were thin slices of excellent salami, prosciutto and hard-boiled egg wedges on lettuce leaves. The plate looked pretty silly, but it tasted good.
The fish of the day was a small whole river trout. The fish -- white, flaky and very fresh -- was sauced with butter, white wine, capers, chopped lemon and parsley. With it came perfectly cooked fresh broccoli and the traditional spaghetti with tomato sauce.
Seafood appeared again in the appealing pasta of the day, with shrimp, clams and scallops in a delicate seafood sauce over fettuccine. The entrees are accompanied by spaghetti; the pastas with a house salad. The salad isn't made with exotic lettuces or balsamic vinegar. It does have very fresh iceberg lettuce and crisp vegetables and a simple, excellent vinaigrette. The salad is like the bread -- not unusual, but so fresh you have to enjoy it.
The most expensive dinner on the menu is a stuffed veal chop for $12.95. (The crab cakes are $12.95, too, but this doesn't seem like the kind of place most people would be ordering crab cakes.)
The tender chop wasn't huge, but it was beautifully cooked with a spinach stuffing (less salt, please) and a winy sauce. If that price is a bit steep for you, try the chicken Marsala. It was equally good and $4 less. The tender boneless breast of chicken lay on a pool of faintly sweet, full-bodied Marsala sauce and sauteed mushrooms.
Desserts include the classics -- cannoli, tiramisu, rum cake. They aren't made in house, which is fine in the case of something like the cannoli, spumoni or tartufo (the chocolate ice cream bombe with chopped maraschino cherries and a thick fudge coating). No complaints there. But Vito's serves its tiramisu in the same little black plastic container it came in originally. The kitchen just pries the lid off. (The tiramisu tastes pretty good, very sweet with a strong flavor of espresso.)
As of this writing, Vito's hasn't been discovered yet. While business is steady, it wasn't really crowded on a Sunday night. But don't count on that continuing. When Cockeysville dwellers realize they don't have to schlep down to Little Italy to find a cozy, comfortable neighborhood Italian restaurant -- they actually have one in their own neighborhood -- it's going to be hard to get in without a reservation.
/# Next: Hampton's in Harbor Court