Grano, the new Hampden pasta joint, is indie-movie cute. You know those movies where some type-A executive loses it all, rediscovers his muse and ends up opening the place of his dreams, a modest bakery or a sweet little cafe, the kind with just a couple of tables and a handful of stools at the counter, where the hero's quirky friends can chat while the emotionally restored hero prepares their meals.
Grano is a place like that, and the hero is being played by none other than Gino Troia, known best for the long-running Cafe Troia, the widely admired Towson restaurant open since 1984 with which he is no longer directly involved. Discovering him at sweet little Grano, welcoming diners, dispensing advice and tastes of his sauces and keeping the conversation going at the counter, is a little like finding Andre Watts playing the piano by the Nordstrom escalator. It's a romantic notion, this returning to the basics, and it's infectious. With a glass of wine (Grano is BYOB), dining at Grano's three-stool counter is Baltimore's newest simple pleasure.
Troia doesn't own Grano - an LLC does - but this place, and especially the simple, easily executed menu, is largely his concept. It's a good one, disarming in its simplicity. Basically, diners choose one of six pastas and one of eight sauces, and, except for a scattering of salads and desserts, a daily soup and one appetizer, that's it. And here's the plot twist: Although Grano feels like the kind of place that would make its own pasta, it doesn't. Instead the kitchen uses, and proudly displays, the premium De Cecco brand. I've heard some grumbling about this, but according to Troia, the boxed pasta holds his sauces better, is more consistent and is more appropriate for Grano's dining experience, which promotes practicality over pretense.
Grano does make its own sauces, though, and they're the featured attraction here. They are all persuasively fresh, with clear evidence of good, quality ingredients - chunks of tomatoes, hunks of pancetta, whole cloves of roasted garlic. Sauces are sauteed to order with cooked pasta, spooned into pasta bowls and served within seconds. Throw in a side of two firm and tasty meatballs ($2.20) and a slice of oregano-flecked garlic bread ($2), and it starts to feel like a full dinner. On our first visit, we took Grano's food home, and it was good, but eating in, at the three-seat counter or at one of the 12 seats indoors and out, was much more enjoyable. Of course, space here is at a premium, and there's not much room to wait inside. So bring along some patience and a Plan B.
There are three standouts among the sauces. The Bolognese is wonderful, with chunks of seasoned ground beef mixed with finely chopped carrots, celery and onions, all with a nice oily sheen. Grano sells its sauces separately in half-pint containers, and this is the one we'd stock up on. The pesto ($9) is perfect, too: green as grass, with the taste of just-picked basil. It went so nicely on the farfalle, clinging to every piece of pasta. But for sheer audacious richness, nothing could top the Gorgonzola-butter sauce, made with (lots of) butter, (lots of) cream, blue cheese and walnuts. Not for calorie counters, but gosh it's good.
Grano's puttanesca ($8) is less a blended sauce than a tossing of peeled tomatoes with capers, olives and anchovies. It might be more authentic, even better, this way, but if so, we found ourselves wanting the streamlined Americanized version, more robust and zesty, with more olive-and-anchovy artillery. The simple oil-garlic-pepperoncini sauce ($8) was similarly too genteel, missing the kind of peppery flavors you'd apply if you were making it at home.
For the beginning of the meal, Grano offers four salads (two of these have been added since our visit). We liked the creamy and tart dressing and the homemade croutons on the Caesar salad ($6), and the subtly fragrant pear vinaigrette on the simple mista salad ($6). There's also a daily soup special ($5) - when we visited, it was a summer-perfect pea and fennel - and Troia's showpiece appetizer, the calamari Vesuvio ($14), a glistening bowlful of tender squid, simmering in a peppery tomato sauce. And at the end of the meal, Grano has a small selection of desserts, the best of which is an airy coconut flan ($3.75), and a cup of espresso, which Troia prefers with agave nectar instead of sugar. Now we do, too.
Where: 1031 W. 36th St.
Open: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday (dinner only)
Credit cards: Visa and MasterCard only
Prices: Sides $2-$6; Entrees $7-$10
Atmosphere: *** 1/2
[Outstanding: **** Good:*** Fair or uneven: ** Poor *]