We'd like to clear up some confusion about Cinghiale. First, there's the name. It's pronounced chin-GOLL-ee, and it's Italian for wild boar—forager pigs often described as gregarious animals. So how can you go wrong with the image of happy oinkers? As it turned out, the restaurant had some adjustments to make in the beginning before it could be truly cheerful. A big-time chef left; a young upstart came on board. What was going on? Baltimoreans were perplexed by the food, too. This was not the Old-World Italian fare they were used to. Yes, there was pasta, but no hint of heavy red gravy. The offerings seemed a little too esoteric—and pricey to boot.
Now, a year later, the restaurant—the brainchild of juggernaut restaurateurs Tony Foreman and Cindy Wolf of The Charleston Group—seems to have found its rhythm. It's adapted; we've succumbed. But the menu, which takes a Northern Italian focus, still can be challenging. Really, does everyone know what treviso (radicchio) or robiola (cheese) are? But don't be intimidated. The knowledgeable servers act as interpreters and cheerfully offer suggestions when asked. My only quibble is that if you order something, say like tuna, they'll respond with, "Oh, il tonno." We'd prefer they didn't rub it in that we don't speak the language.
That aside, there are several menu options and price points at Cinghiale. In fact, there are three dining experiences to be had. And we tried them all—sandwiches sitting at the bar, lighter fare at a table in the enoteca (wine bar), and a three-course prezzo fisso with wine pairings in the osteria (more formal dining room). Interior designer Patrick Sutton incorporated rich tiles, woods, and fixtures to create the casually elegant enoteca. The osteria with its muted green carpet, white walls, wrought-iron candelabras, and multitude of windows exudes a more sophisticated air.
We started with bar food—although this isn't your typical pub grub. (It's a great spot to head after taking in a movie at the Landmark Theatre or just to go solo.) We felt pampered lingering at the luxe bar, where two wild-boar sculptures peer over the crowd, as we chowed into paninis and a captivating grilled calamari starter. The heat of chili oil and crispy, frizzled carrots took this appetizer in a wonderful new direction. Our marvelous bartender—definitely seek out Monica Baker if she's there—brought us extra bread to sop up the remains. We weren't quite as impressed with the paninis ($9), oddly named after cars (Ducati and Ferrari, in our case). They had the requisite meats (salami piccante in the Ferrari, speck in the Ducati) and accouterments (red peppers, mozzarella, tomatoes, and more), but the portions were skimpy. Still, you can soak up the ambiance and people-watch Baltimore's glitterati without spending a lot of money.
On the opposite side of the spectrum and wallet and just a step up from the enoteca is the hushed solemnity of the osteria. Tablecloths and napkins the color of chalk are starched and pristine. Service (in The Charleston Group tradition) is impeccable and impressive—you know, the kind of place where your napkin is gallantly handed to you on seating; where, if you leave the table, it's neatly tri-folded for your return; water glasses are never empty; silverware is constantly replaced.
You can order a la carte or prezzo fisso (three courses for $49 per person, $72 paired with wines) from the menu, which often changes to reflect local and seasonal produce. For instance, the tomato soup (nothing like Campbell's) was an icy clear broth that was reminiscent of a refreshing babbling brook. Ripe-off-the-vine cherry tomatoes, basil, and shrimp added depth and beauty. Another stunner was the raw veal tenderloin—a round of sensuous, chopped meat, hinting of thyme and encircled by thin shaves of piquant Parmesan. The pièce de résistance: a poached quail egg, which burst into a flash of minerally yolk over the veal.
The pasta course provides a proper segue to the entrées. Portions are small, but, honestly, do we always have to super size everything? Executive chef Julian Marucci has fun playing around with his pasta. Basil ravioli are little discs that have been cleverly infused with the herb for a brilliant green color and plumped with smoked mozzarella. They look quite painterly on a nest of eggplant and Sun Gold tomatoes. Spaghetti with littleneck clams was not as successful, though, and would have benefited from less salt and garlic.
When the entrées arrive, you'll be glad you didn't overload on pasta. The roasted pork was a huge, fall-off-the-bone hunk of slowly cooked meat that hinted of rosemary; the grilled big-eye tuna was meticulous slices of pearl-pink fish given a Mediterranean accent with heirloom tomatoes and olives. Accompanying wines varied according to each course as expected, but we really like that we were given a card, noting the wines, so we could keep track. (This is a place that takes its wines—all Italian, of course—very seriously.) A silky panna cotta and zabaglione with seasonal berries were lovely, traditional finishes.
The pastry chef, Jason Gehring, is to be complimented. On another visit, this time at a table in the enoteca, we ended our meal with a torta nonna, a fetching name for "grandma's cake" that brought childlike joy with its house-made peach ice cream; local, sliced peaches; and dainty buttermilk cake. It was a delightful way to end a meal of fried squash (pre-doused with licorice-tasting sambuca), tagliatelle with beet greens and pleasantly crispy chicken slivers, and a heavenly orecchiette, lush with fried sage leaves and Tuscan pecorino.
Cinghiale may have struggled to find a niche in the beginning, but it has evolved into a restaurant with a talented kitchen that gives customers a variety of dining experiences, depending on whether they want casual or formal and what they want to pay. That's the best part: You get to choose.