Mo's Crab and Pasta Factory occupies a peculiar niche in the world of restaurants. Not many places are so casual that customers show up in shorts and T-shirts, yet so fancy that dinner for four can easily run several hundred dollars.
The restaurant, in Little Italy, belongs to the chain of Mo's seafood restaurants, which includes the Fisherman's Wharf, two blocks away on President Street, the Seafood Factory Neighborhood Bar and Grill on Eastern Avenue and Mo's Seafood Factory in Glen Burnie. The company also owns retail and wholesale seafood markets.
The Crab and Pasta Factory opened about 14 years ago, said Farhad Jafari, general manager for the chain. And the old lady is starting to show her age. The main dining room, up a flight of stairs, is vast and dingy, with gray walls and a faintly damp smell.
No bling in the decor, that's for sure, but there's plenty on the plates.
Snow-white lobster tails, mountains of crab imperial and enormous platters of pasta are the norm here. Butter and cream, garlic and oil, crabs, clams, shrimp and filet mignon -- it's all over the top, as if every item is screaming: "I'm worth the price! Look how much food you're getting! Look how many calories! Taste how rich it all is!"
And Mo's is certainly pricey, with most entrees hovering between $18 and $25. We ordered Oysters Rockefeller for an appetizer, and our waitress suggested the Oysters Christopher instead. Same oysters and rich topping, she said, but the Oysters Christopher have shrimp and crab too. She didn't mention that they were $15.95 instead of $9.95.
After that little demonstration, we should have asked the price of the specials. We didn't, so we were surprised to get our bill and learn that one was $42.99 and the other $39.99, both more expensive than anything else on the menu.
A 15 percent tip was added to our bill, standard practice for large parties, but unusual for a table of four. In fact, according to the menu, parties larger than four get an automatic 17 percent tip added on.
Still, if one ignores the drab surroundings, perfunctory service and patrons dressed as though they've just come from an Orioles game, the food itself might be worth the prices.
That $42.99 lobster tail was sweet, fresh-tasting and absolutely enormous, and it was topped with the highest mound of rich crab imperial I've ever seen. And the $39.99 special did buy a lot of food -- two king crab legs, a fried soft-shell crab with a light, crispy coating, a major-league crab cake with plenty of lump meat, plus another enormous mound of crab imperial.
The pasta here tastes as though it was made minutes before it was served. Lobster ravioli is stuffed with meltingly rich, herb-flecked ricotta, then topped with cream-laden lobster sauce and garnished with two enormous pieces of lobster tail. Crab tortellini are equally fresh-tasting little spirals of dough with sweet crab.
But appetizers, such as the hot seafood combo, basically a mix of seafood in a tangy marinara sauce, disappoint with tiny, too-chewy calamari. And the vegetables served on the side -- a large spear of broccoli and some carrot slices -- taste as though they had been frozen, then microwaved.
Desserts, naturally, are as excessive as everything else at Mo's. After all that food we could manage only a single slice of chocolate cake, made more decadent with whipped cream frosting and surrounded by clouds of whipped cream and topped with a moon-shaped morsel of milk chocolate.
Clearly, there's a lot to like at Mo's. I'm sure some people actually prefer eating a nice meal without the fuss of a fancy restaurant. Personally, when I'm spending that kind of money at a restaurant, I want to feel like I'm going someplace special.
Mo's Crab and Pasta Factory
Where: 502 Albemarle St.
Open: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day
Credit cards: All major
Prices: Appetizers, $4.95-$15.95; entrees, $16.95-$42.99
Food: *** (3 stars)
Service: ** (2 stars)
Atmosphere: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)