Much can be forgiven if a restaurant has one great item that can draw customers from all over the city. In Cafe di Roma's case, it's gelato.
More specifically, the gelato I ordered: a scoop of the meringue flavor that was like eating a cloud, creamy and very sweet with a bit of crunch. I paired it with a scoop of intensely citrusy lemon. Of course, the friend who also ordered gelato for dessert would say his flavors -- a silky scoop of chocolate and an almond-scented amaretto -- were the best.
I start with gelato because that's how Cafe di Roma started when it opened a year ago last June, as a gelateria with sandwiches and pastries. Later the owners opened an upstairs dining room and bar -- nothing fancy, but pleasant enough. No restaurant in Little Italy, even the most expensive, can be called truly formal; but this was casual even by Little Italy standards, with entrees averaging around $15.
Enter Bill Hughes, formerly of Liberatore's in Timonium. He's also been involved with the Cosmopolitan Bar & Grill and the Claddagh Pub in Canton. About six weeks ago, he became a part owner of Cafe di Roma and took over its kitchen.
Although that was a while ago, things are still somewhat in flux. Our waitress thought the new chef might be changing the menu soon, so we stuck to the specials, which she said were all Hughes, as much as we could. Unfortunately, that made our meal more expensive than it needed to be. The price of specials hovers around $20 -- and up.
I actually liked our one entree from the regular menu, the veal piccata for $13.95, as much as anything else we had. The veal was milky and tender with a light lemon butter sauce and a scattering of capers. Pasta with a fresh-tasting tomato sauce came with it.
The specials were richer and more massive in quantity, with more assertive flavors. Two filet mignons, buttery-soft and rosy-centered, were layered high with tomatoes and mozzarella; they would have been superb if they hadn't been doused in black pepper.
An enormous, fresh salmon fillet had been grilled so that it had a bit of crispness to its edges but was moist inside. It was arranged with fresh spinach and crisp shoestring potatoes and had just a drizzle of blush-pink, creamy sauce.
Spinach and shoestring potatoes also formed a bed for large soft-shelled crabs, lightly battered and sauteed. Their buttery sauce soaked down into the potatoes so they were at once crunchy and soft where the butter sauce had drenched them.
A fourth special that evening was prime rib. We wanted at least one entree that was a little more Italian, which was why we tried instead the veal piccata off the regular menu. Our first courses came from the menu, too, except for an unfortunately named sausage stew, which turned out to be a fine vegetable soup along the lines of minestrone with the addition of some slivers of sausage and a few black beans.
Starters are pretty limited, with more salads than appetizers offered. Even then, the arugula salad wasn't available, and I had to make do with the house salad, which had too much iceberg lettuce in it. A better bet would be the funghi trifolati: shiitake, portobello and cultivated mushrooms sauteed in olive oil with garlic and parsley.
Or you could do what one friend did: Get a half-order of one of the good pastas to start your meal. His penne came alive with pungent broccoli raab and a drift of parmesan. For some reason, the expected sausage was missing, but the dish worked well anyway as a first course.
At the moment the wine situation at Cafe di Roma is grim. The choice on the menu is a glass of house wine, a half carafe or a carafe. However, our waitress produced several moderately priced bottles from behind the bar for us to choose from, and eventually Cafe di Roma may even have a wine list.
Of course, you've saved room for dessert. If you don't want gelato -- foolish you -- you might try the coconut bread pudding, which comes two squares to an order stacked in a tower. (Hughes is into the tall food thing.) Ours was a bit dry, but its custard sauce saved it. There's also a semi freddo, that mousse-ice cream combination, but when you can choose your own gelato flavors, it takes a back seat.
Right now, Cafe di Roma hasn't quite decided on its identity. Is it going to be a neighborhood Italian restaurant with good food, as the setting and menu suggest? Or something more ambitious, as the specials seem to imply? I'm sure people will happily spend $15 for an entree here. But if a new menu ends up being more along the lines of the specials, customers will demand something more in the way of atmosphere.
Cafe di Roma
Food: ** 1/2
Atmosphere: ** 1/2
Where: 413 S. High St., Baltimore
Hours: Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $7.50-$8.25; main courses, $8.95-$18.95
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *