Tappo's, Oxford Road, Oxford, (410) 226-0134. Open Thursdays to Tuesdays for lunch and dinner. Major credit cards. Prices: appetizers, $4.95-$8.95; entrees, $10.95-$18.95. ***
Running an Italian restaurant in the small Eastern Shore town of Oxford is not like running one in Baltimore. Look at the hours above. Wondering why Tappo's is closed on Wednesdays? Because that's the day Chef Bob Lankanhammer likes to sail.
But then, nothing about this place is very typical. The owner, Edward Cushman, and his wife, Ann, opened Tappo's last summer after spending 10 years living with their youngest child on a yacht in the Mediterranean. Originally from New York, Mr. Cushman decided Oxford would be the place for his new restaurant because he'd stopped there on a sailing trip and loved the town.
When he decided to open an Italian restaurant, he didn't hire a cook from, say, Little Italy. Instead he went to the elegant 208 Talbot in St. Michaels for Chef Lankanhammer.
But there's nothing elegant about Tappo's -- at least from the outside. You'd probably drive right by it if you didn't know better. Mr. Cushman started with an old gas station, pumped (no pun intended) a ton of money into it and ended up with a pretty little place that looks like it might serve pizzas and spaghetti with clam sauce. In fact, a sign outside says "Open for Lunch: Pizzas, Deli, Roti-chicken." What it doesn't say is "Open for Dinner: Baby Squids in Balsamic Vinegar and Veal with Wild Mushrooms."
The town of Oxford is as deceptive as the restaurant itself. It looks likes a sleepy little Shore place, but there's a lot of money in the area and a lot of sophisticated eaters.
They seem to like the bright, casual interior of Tappo's, with its highly varnished hardwood floors, blond wood tables set with paper place mats and fresh flowers, and deep red, dark green and cream color scheme. The room is brightened with charming wall paintings -- vines and flowers that trail over the chair rails. You can also eat on the prettily landscaped terrace outside.
And the locals seem to like the menu -- a short combination of old favorites and creative specialties. According to Mr. Cushman, Tappo's only really slow month since it opened was February. The place isn't just dependent on the summer tourist trade.
Customers come for the array of pastas, a few veal dishes, chicken al tegamino. The menu offers surprisingly little seafood considering that Oxford is on the Eastern Shore -- none at all except the squid and the clams in the clam sauce. There is one fish of the day (this day it was potato-crusted rockfish), and the evening's specials included mussels and clams as first courses.
Chef Lankanhammer's strength is his sauces, so it doesn't matter as much as it might that Tappo's uses dried pasta. He tosses penne with prosciutto in a sensational cream sauce, and fettuccine with ground veal in a fresh, light tomato sauce just touched with cream.
Sauteed rings of calamari, at once agreeably chewy and tender, sported a memorable sauce based on balsamic vinegar. Dark and intensely flavorful, with a faint edge of sweetness, it cried out for good bread to sop it up with.
Unfortunately, at Tappo's you get rolls, fairly ordinary rolls. There is olive oil to dip them in instead of butter, but somehow dipping rolls instead of good bread in olive oil isn't very satisfying. The table next to us had instead a plate of char-grilled slices of bread. They clearly had been to Tappo's before.
The char-grilled bread is the base for Tappo's first-class panzanella. Warm, chopped fresh tomatoes in a vibrantly seasoned olive oil spilled out over the three slices of grilled garlic bread.
A less filling beginning might be the restaurant's carpaccio, the translucently thin slices of raw beef arranged with capers, shaved Parmesan and lemon wedges, then drizzled with olive oil.
You could also start with soup -- Tappo's pasta e fagioli balances pasta and white beans with an artful tomato-based broth. Or just enjoy the simple green salad with local tomatoes and a pleasant vinaigrette.
Main courses weren't as noteworthy as our starters (with one exception) and were somewhat overpriced. What was supposed be roasted chicken turned out to be a sauteed breast, with a dark, winy sauce and sliced black olives. Roast potatoes and a pretty mixture of zucchini and carrots came with it. Not bad, but the price tag of $16.95 seemed a bit much.
Veal piccata showcased sauteed veal scallops in an egg batter with an even more lemony than usual butter sauce. Decent enough, but not exactly memorable.
Our best dish wasn't even particularly Italian. This was the special that evening, fresh, flaky white rockfish surrounded by a crust of crisp-edged, tissue-thin potato slices that held in its juices. The sauce was delicate and creamy, tinged pink with sun-dried tomatoes.
Vaccaro's, the Italian pastry shop that seems to supply most Italian restaurants in Baltimore with desserts, hasn't made it to the Eastern Shore yet. You'll find that Tappo's cannolis and tiramisu are very different from the ones you're used to getting around here. (Thumbs down for the gummy texture of the cannoli's filling; thumbs up for the excellent, creamy tiramisu.) But my favorite dessert was a slice of Italian cheesecake, made with sweetened ricotta cheese, studded with fat raisins and perfumed with orange.
Next: Spike & Charlie's