We were looking forward to going down to Canton to try Franco Zeppi, the new Italian place that has opened up in the American Can Company. We had heard that it was a pleasant looking restaurant with outdoor seating and that it was self-service. Whatever "self-service" might turn out to mean, we figured we could do worse than eat pasta and drink wine while watching the clear, cool, late-summer sun set behind the Fells Point skyline.
We were pleasantly relieved to discover that Franco Zeppi is not a cafeteria. Self-service means that we stood in line for a minute while we read the menu, then we placed our order with one of the personable young women behind the counter, paid her, got a numbered ticket, grabbed our San Pelegrino and wine and found a table that appealed (inside, because the temperature had dropped).
The counter staff calls out each ticket number as the food appears, and dishes ordered together arrive at the same time. We've experienced far worse pacing in sit-down establishments. The only problem with the system is that it's pay-as-you-go, so if you want to try another dish or order another drink, you have to pay again.
Franco Zeppi's menu is, not surprisingly, all Italian, but in a friendly, familiar (American) way: There are many pasta dishes with many customary sauces - meatballs, meat sauce, carbonara, alfredo, putanesca and napoletana, to name a few. There are also baked pasta dishes: shells, manicotti, ravioli, ziti and lasagna, and a wide variety of dinners, like chicken parmagiana, veal marsala, or shrimp and calamari marinara. The restaurant also serves pizza and calzones.
We started by loading the table with appetizers: mozzarella caprese, an antipasto salad and a fritto misto, which was a mighty plate of fried calamari, zucchini and mozzarella sticks. The mozzarella caprese came with a few slices of plum tomato and some olive oil, but this dish is all about the cheese, and Franco Zeppi's was pretty lifeless.
The antipasto salad, like many served in Baltimore establishments, was a house salad: crispy, white lettuce topped with onion shavings, a slice of salami, two slices of provolone, a little grated cheese and plenty of red wine vinegar. Not outstanding but not bad either. The fried zucchini in the fritto misto was sweet and tender, but under-represented, while the calamari was plentiful, but tough and chewy. The mozzarella sticks put the cheese to better use than in the mozzarella caprese: the sticks were crispy on the outside, tender on the inside and served as an admirable tool for scooping up the accompanying garlicky marinara dipping sauce.
For entrees, we tried one of the evening's specials, linguini matuccio (clams and shrimp in red sauce), shrimp scampi (over linguini), shrimp fra diavolo (over linguini) and another special, veal saltimboca (penne on the side). The clams in the matuccio dish were too big to be tender. The shrimp in all the dishes was a bit tough and tasted as if it had been added at the last minute. In other words, it didn't get any extra flavor from any of the sauces. Veal saltimboca, well prepared and sauteed escollopes of veal with prosciutto and mozzarella, was salty (which is not what its name means) and served in more than enough of cooking oils. The pasta was, in every case, al dente with a fresh, chunky tomato sauce.
After so much food, who could think of dessert? Ever the consummate professionals, we tried two of the many kinds of housemade cookies (fudge puddles and snowballs) and locally made frozen Italian sweets (spumoni and tortone). All were only fair.
Perhaps our food choices were too fancy. Maybe we should have ordered pizza and calzone. Hard to say, but Franco Zeppi's food could definitely be better. On the other hand, it's a big, clean place with a nice staff and a great location. It's also one of the few places in Canton that's kid- and family-friendly.
On the way out, we discovered the detail that appealed to us the most: a high school portrait of Glen Burnie's most famous citizen, Frank Zappa. No one could tell us why it was there, but we think he makes a distinctive guardian angel.
Franco Zeppi Ristorante Italian
2400 Boston St.
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Credit cards: All major cards
Prices: Entrees $9.95 to $14.95
Service: Not applicable
Ratings system: Outstanding ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven ** ; Poor *