There comes a time for every true Baltimorean when he or she needs to make a trip to Little Italy. Not to one of the several "new" (i.e. they opened in the last 10 or 15 years) restaurants. But to a family-owned one that, perhaps, your parents took you to when you were little, where pasta equaled spaghetti, seafood meant shrimp fra diavolo and dessert was cannoli from Vaccaro's Italian Pastry Shop.
Sadly -- or thank goodness, depending on your point of view -- I'm not sure such restaurants still exist. Even the most conservative have started to serve artisan breads, authentic regional dishes and a fresh fish of the day. But some Little Italy restaurants do still have the attentive service and homey, old-fashioned atmosphere you remember from years ago.
Such an establishment is Caesar's Den. Step inside and you might be in a family dining room -- a bit frumpy, OK, but warm and inviting. The carpeting, subdued lighting and white linen tablecloths aren't cutting edge; but they absorb sound. The waiter has an admirable balance of casual friendliness and pride in his profession.
Caesar's Den, like many Little Italy restaurants, offers something intangible beyond getting a meal on the table. For want of a better phrase, I'll call it a good time. I'm not sure why, but my friends and I always enjoy ourselves a little more than we should in Little Italy, given the fact that the food isn't always four-star.
At Caesar's Den our meal had its ups and downs; but the bread was wonderful, the wine flowed freely, our waiter was attentive without being intrusive, and we laughed a lot.
In the up category, put the penne alla rigoletto. The pasta was tossed with bright-green, sharply flavorful arugula; magenta radicchio leaves; and a delicate, creamy gorgonzola sauce. It couldn't have been better. A mixed grill of veal, sweet Italian sausage and succulent little rib lamb chops fragrant with rosemary was a meat-lover's delight, happily accompanied by crisp-edged roast potatoes and sauteed mushrooms. Almost anything with the moist, buttery polenta is worth ordering; and gamberi alla griglia, fat grilled shrimp with a chopped tomato and bean salad, turned out to be a fine summer supper. The antipasto di mare should have been fine summer food as well, but the chilled seafood -- shrimp, mussels, clams and calamari -- was arranged on a bed of pedestrian greens with chopped tomatoes that didn't do justice to summer. More of those chopped tomatoes appeared on a piece of tuna so thin it would have been difficult to grill medium rare as ordered. And, indeed, it came well done.
Caesar's Den doesn't have a seasonal menu; much of the food, like the osso buco (a house specialty), is really more suitable for a winter meal. The braised veal shank was huge and juicily tender; but the sauce was more a puree of carrots and onions than sauce, a variation that was hard to get passionate about. The same could be said of spiedino alla romana, an appetizer of fried bread and hot melting mozzarella, wickedly sauced with anchovy-flavored melted butter. It sounds more spectacular than it was. Like the hearty pasta e fagioli soup, it was serviceable without being very interesting.
Desserts did much to restore our faith in dinner at Caesar's Den. Tangerine sherbet in a hollowed-out tangerine, fresh-tasting cannoli and tartuffo (coffee ice cream and a toffee-like crunch in a hard chocolate shell) -- all of them made us happy. Only the odd, pudding-like tiramisu failed to please.
Food: ** 1/2
Atmosphere: ** 1/2
Where: 223 S. High St.
Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $5-$9.50; main courses, $12.50-$28.50
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *