If you like Italian restaurants where you feel as if you're eating in someone's home, you're going to love Grano.
That used to be one of the great draws of Baltimore's Little Italy - that you could find small, family-run places where you could get a homey, low-key, not too expensive dinner. Grano, which recently moved to larger quarters where Dangerously Delicious Pies Savory House was in Hampden, now does that better than any other restaurant I've been to recently.
True, it's not exactly family-run. Owner Gino Troia is working with Marc Dettori, whom many Baltimoreans know from Brasserie Tatin and Petit Louis. They are an odd twosome to be running an Italian restaurant (Dettori was born near Lyon), but they are affable, we're-glad-you-came presences in the tiny dining room.
They want to make sure their customers enjoy themselves. Not sure you want to start your meal with a half-order of clams linguine, a special that night? Troia suggests instead a plate of the tiny clams in their shells on a bed of baby spinach, soaking in a seductive sauce of butter, white wine, garlic and pepper. He's gotten up from a table where he was sitting with a glass of wine to wait on his latest customers.
Grano's new space is charming, consisting of the small front room of a rowhouse and a sunporch with a communal table. The walls are a soft coral pink, a pleasing backdrop for small pictures, sconces, artistic antique farm implements, a gilt-framed mirror. A handsome antique sideboard fills one wall. The floors and wooden tables are bare, but it's still a warm room - and a very noisy one when it's filled and diners are starting on their second bottle of wine. It all depends on who's eating at the other tables when you're there; we lucked out on one visit, not on another.
The reasons people liked the original Grano still hold. It's still BYOB. The heart of its menu is still pasta: six kinds that you pair with various sauces. Potato gnocchi, delicious morsels with a bit of chew for a couple of dollars more, are also available. (Pair them with the creamy, blush-pink vodka sauce.)
If you're looking for cutting-edge Italian cuisine, go somewhere else. These are familiar, traditional, homey recipes. The biggest concession the kitchen makes to current trends is to use hormone-free meat and eggs from a local farm and eco-friendly takeout containers.
No, the pasta isn't made in house, but then the prices reflect that.
What the larger space allows Gino Troia to do is have a special or two beyond the pastas. One night, for instance, veal was offered, served with sliced boiled potatoes. It wasn't the most tender veal I've ever had, but it wasn't as bland as some, and the lemony sauce with its fat capers was nicely done.
Portuguese sardines might be available as a first course, stuffed with raisins, chopped onion and anise, with a bit of sauteed spinach on the side.
If the kitchen feels like making soup, there will be soup, perhaps a thick, heartwarming potato and leek (no, not vichyssoise - a piping-hot soup).
In the European tradition, bread will cost you, but it's a great rustic bread from Bonaparte Bakery with olive oil and roasted garlic, and well worth the extra $2.
The piatto misto for two on the menu wasn't available. The restaurant "doesn't have its slicer" yet, we were told. That means if you don't care for the appetizer of the day, you might want to start with one of the salads. I recommend the baby spinach with glazed walnuts and a light coating of melted Gorgonzola.
I preferred it to the Caesar, which is perfectly fine but not as interesting. The dressing is an eggless one that Troia has been making for years at his other restaurants.
Although there is more to choose from in the new digs, my guess is that most people at Grano are there for the pasta. For under $10 you get a generous portion - perhaps fettucine freshly tossed with pancetta from Springfield Farm, olive oil, eggs, and pecorino Romano cheese. And a healthy dose of garlic, of course. Or a tangy, meaty Bolognese over spaghetti.
Kids are welcome here, too, by the way. For $5, you can get a plate of pasta with butter and cheese for them.
Bring your own bottle of wine. This food demands it. There's a $3 corkage fee, or the restaurant will make a liquor run for you to the nearby Wine Source.
Desserts have the same home-cooking feel as the rest of the meal. I'd stick with the deliciously rich but not particularly beautiful tiramisu. There's also a cannolo that tastes no better and no worse than those from Vaccaro's. I've heard the coconut flan is good, but we ended up with a chocolate flan so rich you'll regret ordering it after a huge plate of pasta.
The original Grano pasta bar on 36th Street, by the way, is still open for business. The original plan was to turn it into a Cuban restaurant, but that fell through. It will close in January for a couple of weeks for renovations, but it will basically remain "Little Grano," as the staff is calling it now.
I never got around to eating at Little Grano, mostly because it always seemed unlikely it would be possible to get one of the 11 seats. The new Grano is my kind of casual restaurant. Not only is there room for more people, the food is good and not too expensive, the staff is fun and the place itself is loaded with quirky personality.
Where: : 3547 Chestnut Ave.
Contact: : 443-869-3429, GranoPastaUS.com
Hours: : open for dinner Monday through Saturday, for brunch soon.
First courses: : $2.50-$18 (for two); pastas: $5-$11.95; specials: $22
Food: : *** (3 stars)
Service: : *** (3 stars)
Atmosphere: : *** (3 stars)
[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]