An Egyptian twist to pizza and pita


It seems funny to me that in Baltimore it's easier to find a good Egyptian pizza with a pita crust than it is to find an authentic New York-style pizza. Not that Egyptian pizza is second best. Pita dough makes an excellent thin crust, especially when it's baked in a wood-fired oven like the one at the Nile Cafe in Fells Point.

Yehia Fetian, who has owned the Nile Cafe for the last two years, is renovating the simple interior to look like an Egyptian temple, as some of his competitors have done to their places. Right now, the decor consists of tired orange carpet tiles, fresco-like paintings on distressed plaster walls and a few decorative ankhs, the hieroglyphic symbol of life.

But it's the wood-fired oven visible through the dining-room doorway that dominates the restaurant, giving off a robust smoky aroma and a warm background glow. It also lends a lot of toasty character to the excellent pita-crust pizza served here.

We loved the fresh flavor of the mixed-seafood pizza, with flakes of crab and chunks of shrimp and scallops. As at most gourmet pizza parlors, there are dozens of dizzying pizza choices, with flavors ranging from Mediterranean to Indian.

Pizza is not the only reason to visit the Nile Cafe, though. Its Middle Eastern food is delicious, done with an Egyptian twist. On the combination platter, chickpea falafel are embedded with fennel and coriander seeds along with the usual sesame. The eggplant spread, baba ghanoush, is chunkier and more flavorful than usual, with a mix of fresh herbs. And a square of goat's milk feta cheese is tangier than the typical cow's milk feta. The only problem was the mushy tabouli, a bulgar wheat salad full of watery tomatoes.

Our helpful waiter brought over giant puffs of warm pita bread for us to eat with the combination platter and with a salty appetizer of Middle Eastern garlic scampi. The three shrimp were large and nicely cooked, but the trio of sea scallops the menu promised was missing. Cumin-scented yellow lentil soup, served piping hot, got its own wedge of garlic bread pita on the side.

A cup of that golden, comforting soup and a salad would make a fine meal. You also might want to try Cleopatra's dream, a large entree salad made with fresh romaine, thin slivers of seasoned chicken and pine nuts, and tossed with the cheese-filled house vinaigrette.

The Middle Eastern dinners all come with a small, fresh salad of crisp romaine and vegetables on the plate. Our dinner, the lamb schwarma, featured strips of long-marinated, extremely tender lamb and sauteed onions that we scooped up in pita. We liked it, even though it was on the salty side.

It might be wise to stick to Middle Eastern specialties. The pasta we ordered, fettuccine with chicken in creamy pesto, was leaden. The strands of fettuccine were glued together in thick pesto cream, and it was hard to detect, let alone taste, the tiny pieces of roasted chicken.

For dessert, try the Egyptian versions of the phyllo and nut pastry, baklava, and the custard and shredded wheat pastry, konafa. Think of them as sweet variations on a Middle Eastern theme.

Nile Cafe Egyptian Pizza

Address: 811 S. Broadway 410-327-0005

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers, $2.50-$9.95; entrees, $5.95-$14.95

Food: ***

Service: **1/2

Atmosphere: **

Ratings system:

Outstanding: ***

Good ***

Fair or uneven **

Poor *

Pub Date: 1/7/99

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