A CITY CAN never have too many good Italian restaurants, at least as far as consumers are concerned. And if you're offering tasty dishes of pasta, like the folks are at Scotto's Cafe on Charles, there's more than enough room in town.
Last year, Scotto's owners took over the space that used to be Mount Vernon's much-beloved Louie's Bookstore Cafe. Ben Scotto and Enrico Esposito tried to keep things pretty much the same: The nouvelle-ish menu was kept on; the rich periwinkle-purple walls are still there, as is the elegant two-story dining area and bar. But the bookstore was banned to the basement, where it became a miserable shadow of itself before it was put out of its misery.
Four months ago, Scotto, Esposito and his brother, Giuseppe, the chef, decided to scrap the menu in favor of what they best knew how to do - Italian food.
The results are a number of well-described salads, sandwiches, meats and pasta dishes that make selection very tough. Most are representative of the food the Espositos learned to make in the family restaurant in Naples. (The Neapolitan culinary style features lots of tomatoes.) Courtesy of Italy's Adriatic, or eastern coast, there's also a nice group of dishes with cream sauce.
Pasta outshines everything else here. For example, two of us cleaned up every last bite of a crab ravioli appetizer and fettuccine entree, but did not come close to finishing our mussels appetizer or prosciutto mozzarella sandwich with bell peppers.
The woody-tasting mussels in garlic and white-wine sauce could not hold a candle to the plump ravioli, whose creamy crab and ricotta filling balanced beautifully with the tart sun-dried tomatoes in brandied cream sauce. The fatty prosciutto made eating a strange-looking affair; only among friends can you feel comfortable with an inch of meat dangling from your chops.
Portions aren't skimpy, making Scotto's reasonably priced entrees a good investment. The gnocchi pesto - small potato dumplings tossed in a basil-rich cream sauce - and manicotti were as good at home as they were in the restaurant.
Good service was almost nonexistent when 518 N. Charles St. housed Louie's. Scotto's seems to be striving to overthrow its predecessor's abysmal reputation. Our waiter was attentive and humorous, if not super speedy.
There is one very important aspect of Louie's legacy that Scotto's needs to revive - good desserts. The fare served now, made by a national outfit called Bindi, looks more appetizing than it is. When we went, only a handful of the choices were available.
We picked a yellow cake filled with what appeared to be a layer of dark creamy chocolate. We got a bone-dry pastry filled with something that resembled chocolate in color only. Maybe the cake was on its last legs. Whatever the reason, I'd be hard-pressed to try dessert here again.
Instead, I'd spend my money (and calories) on that crab ravioli appetizer.
Scotto's Cafe on Charles
518 N. Charles St.
Hours: Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays to Fridays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays
Prices: Appetizers $4.95 to $7.95; entrees $4.95 to $17.95
Credit cards: All major cardsFood: ** 1/2
Service: ** 1/2