I'm sitting in the newest Liberatore's (there are two others, one in Timonium and one in Eldersburg) wondering how this one could conceivably be called a bistro. And how the owner could have characterized it -- before it opened, to be sure -- as having "rustic decor."
Unless, of course, your idea of rustic decor includes classical columns, sponge-painted walls, murals of Italian landscapes, the trademark Liberatore cherubs -- both paintings and plump little statues -- white tablecloths and fresh flowers.
This rustic decor didn't come about by accident, either. Not one but two firms worked on it -- Battistone Designs and Rebekah Gurfinchel Interiors.
This was the restaurant that was supposed to have more casual food and lower prices than the other two, and I suppose it does. (Although I don't remember the others being terrifically expensive.) You can get pizza and Italian sandwiches here, but dishes like lobster and shrimp tetrazzini and seafood risotto are what most people seem to be ordering for dinner.
It's not what I think of as bistro fare, so forget the name and instead think of Liberatore's as a place to go for a nice dinner out or even a special occasion.
It's also a safe restaurant. Nothing very innovative is being done in the kitchen, but you can count on getting a good meal and value for your money. No one is going to be shocked by too small portions, too bizarre ingredients or too inventive presentations.
You could spend around $10 for a pasta and call it dinner. Tortellini tre salse, for instance, is a rich and substantial meal, with tender cheese-stuffed pasta covered with pesto, marinara and Alfredo sauces blended together. (It doesn't taste like three sauces but one new sauce. Not bad.)
Looking for something a little fancier? Veal Liberatore offers veal scallops topped with lump crab meat and an ocean of good but incredibly rich cream sauce. OK, it's not exactly subtle, but no one said you had to eat all that cream sauce.
Not every dish is an example of caloric excess. Char-grilled tuna, fresh and firm, was sauced with tomatoes, onion and capers. A boneless, skinless chicken breast Miama topped with a basil-scented salad of greens and tomatoes was low in fat but had plenty of flavor.
A side dish of pasta isn't an afterthought here. Instead of spaghetti with a tired sauce, Liberatore's has bow ties with a freshly made, sprightly tomato sauce.
We were less impressed by our first courses, which had potential but were flawed in one way or another. Roasted red peppers topped with prosciutto were good enough to stand on their own, but they came with fresh mozzarella on indifferent tomatoes.
Thin slices of grilled zucchini, squash and eggplant were delicious, but they were drowning in oil and balsamic vinegar. Fried calamari was over-salted and over-peppered.
Liberatore's bread and butter may be classic Italian dishes, but not so far as desserts are concerned. No rum cake, cannoli or tiramisu here. Instead, take your pick from such temptations as chocolate mousse, lemon roll with pine nuts and mixed berry tart.
Where: 9712 Groffs Mill Drive, Owings Mills
Hours: Open for lunch Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Monday through Thursday 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 11 p.m., Sunday 3 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers: $3.95-$8.50; entrees: $12.95-$23.95. Major credit cards.
$ Call: (410) 356-3100
Pub Date: 8/18/96