Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts
13 Maryland Plaza
Central West End
Lunch and dinner Tue–Sun
Average Main Course: $17
Reservations: Make ’em.
Bar Italia’s a lovely place in the summer. You remember summer. It’ll be here. Soon. The restaurant’s alfresco tables, spilling out near Maryland Plaza, are prime summer-dining real estate. There’s no reason to wait, though. In the colder months, part of that patio gets covered and heated. Inside, tones of lemon and scarlet cover the walls, lending a warm ambience. A maze of dining spaces affords distinctly varying atmospheres. Choose one of the small rooms if you’re in a group; opt for the upstairs tables that look out onto the street for a more romantic, secluded meal. The well-stocked bar is particularly inviting; don’t hesitate to have dinner served there. Next visit, we’re going to make a fuss to be allowed into the upstairs wine room. It’s among the coolest dining spots in town.
The fare is Italian, of course, with a menu that does a tarantella all over that country, from a spinach torte from Emilia-Romagna to a classic Sicilian salad. This is always suspicious. The savvy diner like you prefers, in Italian places, those that specialize in a specific regional cuisine. We tried several dishes, though, and found them expertly prepared, handsomely presented. Equally obvious: This is a place that demands more than one visit. There are too many tempting choices.
Start with some pasta possibilities. The tomato sauce that holds tender lobes of mussels over linguine is light, more sweet than acidic. Sweet peppers brighten a toss of penne quills; sautéed onion and garlic in olive oil complete the minimalist pasta con peperonata. Fettuccine alla Siciliana is considerably fussier, with a complex sauce of eggplant, tomatoes, olives, and capers. We opted for the simplest pasta dish, a fistful of chanterelles—chewy and fibrous, with a flavor of the woods in winter—tossed with thick tubes of ribbed penne and topped with shards of Parmesan. Utterly delicious. There are pleasant details from the kitchen, incidentally. The tortellini, for instance, plumped with cheese, are noticeably larger than the same pasta squares used in a soup, as they should be. Note, by the way, that pasta portions are full-sized here; don’t think you can have a diminutive pasta course on the side.
While main-course pietanze don’t present any surprises, they don’t disappoint. The pollo alla griglia is marinated in a combination of citrus and garlic, but with a light hand on the salt. If you’ve ever spent a post-pollo griglia evening guzzling San Pellegrino like it was water, the thirst is usually from too much salt in the chicken. Sirloin grilled the same way, and just as tasty, is splashed with a balsamic reduction and served with mashed potatoes. Medallions of pork are pounded to a veal-like tenderness, then seared and smothered with a glossy, off-white cream sauce that tastes just faintly of nutmeg. We sampled an evening special, a generous salmon fillet, pan-seared perfectly, balanced on a mound of braised, slow-cooked turnip greens and fine chopped onions. While the presentation seems more Tuscaloosan than Tuscan, it works more than nicely with the fish. A cake of polenta on the side just plain works.
Tortes and panini make for satisfying lighter meals. A torta di spinaci is better known as an erbazzone. Spinach, artichoke hearts, and peppers are all sweated tender, then rolled with ricotta and mozzarella in a flaky golden crust; the dish lacks only the expected pork, a part traditionally played in this pie by pork belly. The best choice of panino is the one layered with prosciutto and mozzarella on French bread. But the one packed with salami, coppa, mortadella, mozzarella, lettuce, and tomato is just a titch behind.
The house lettuce salad is famous, mostly for its lemon, olive oil, and vinegar dressing. Beautifully authentic is a Sicilian salad, its greens accompanied by blanched green beans and wedges of boiled potatoes along with black olives, red onions, and a refreshingly light oil-and-vinegar dressing.
Oh, and the antipasti. There are about eight offered. Order any combination. Go ahead; we dare you. Find a bad one. Spears of crisp asparagus, glistening with olive oil, spread out beside a leaf pile of papery pink prosciutto and a couple of flakes of fresh Parmesan, with a generous blob of lemon aioli. Another near-perfect starter consists of olives—fat, green, salty Cerignolas; earthy black, dry, salt-cured Ligurians; and some little wrinkled beauties we didn’t recognize but we think were Gaetas—along with cheeses, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Gorgonzola, and a smooth, creamy, ricotta salata.
Comfortable but drearily ordinary bruschetta is usually the sweater vest of Italian appetizers. At Bar Italia, a layer of ricotta under the chopped tomatoes and mozzarella does wonders, the bread warm and toasty, cheese suitably brown and gooey. Other courses here are good, mostly very good. Antipasti at Bar Italia are, however, superb.
Desserts are typical: tiramisu, zabaglione, zuccotto, and other treats that would afford you a high score in Scrabble. Whatever you order, have a latte orzata with it, steamy with almond syrup. It’s like unicorn milk.
A wine list, exclusively Italian, hits all the right notes. Barbaresco, Montepulciano, several Chiantis Classici…the varieties and vintages are uniformly superior. Prices are not unreasonable.
Summer’s coming. Bar Italia will be packed. So go now. Linger over espresso, or that fabulous latte orzata. Festeggiare la primavera.
The Bottom Line: A wide array of Italian fare in a pleasant, Euro-vibey atmosphere.