Sweet Léla’s leads a double life. It hides under the guise of a market café by day and then cleverly struts itself as a multi-course, tablecloth restaurant at night, at least on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. And the manager, Vincenzo Diferrante, is so irresistibly charming that you’re won over long before the vegetable antipasti arrives on a pretty orange plate with thick slabs of fresh mozzarella, tender eggplant, black olives, and summer-licious tomatoes.
The tiny Towson restaurant quietly opened its doors a few months ago in the spot once occupied by Towson Delly. It sits on the edge of the Towson Roundabout, looking very European with a smattering of outdoor tables shaded by jaunty red umbrellas. (There are a few tables inside, too.) Named after owner Antonio Iacampo’s two-year-old daughter, Sweet Léla’s is open for breakfast and lunch seven days a week and for its signature dinner menu on the aforementioned days.
Our waiter, who must have gone to charm school with Diferrante, was gracious and helpful in making decisions about the courses, which change often, depending on what’s fresh in the market. The entrées are prepared by an “Italian lady,” who brings the food to the café, Iacampo says. Finishing touches are added by the kitchen staff.
This is BYOB, but there’s no corkage fee, a nice change from the current trend to tack on bucks for removing a cork. A bucket of ice is quickly brought to the table to chill your white wine. Also, consider ordering a bottle of Sanbitter, a bright-red, nonalcoholic, Italian soda, and doctor it up with your wine for a pleasant apertif. We can thank Diferrante for that suggestion.
And while there are tablecloths, cutlery is silvery plastic, and napkins are paper. Dishes, though, are ceramic in bold, primary colors. It’s casual in an endearing way, like you’ve stopped by grandma’s for good home cooking.
Even though the place is small, there’s no rushing you through dinner to turn over tables. Our courses arrived at appropriate intervals. After the antipasti, we split a generous portion of seafood salad. Tender spinach leaves, glistening with a subtle touch of olive oil, held enough shrimp, mussels, clams, octopus, and calamari for two to share. The seafood—from Conrad’s Crabs and Seafood Market in Towson—was so incredibly fresh you could almost smell the ocean air. Only some of the octopus tentacles were uncomfortably chewy.
Entrées—bracioli and stuffed shells—were reasonable portions that didn’t overwhelm with heaviness. Both dishes were accented by a seductive tomato sauce that was so light you wanted to keep dipping in for more. The bracioli (rolled pork) was tender to the bite; the shells, aromatic with a subtle spice enhancing the ricotta filling. We’re thinking it was cinnamon, but our server couldn’t verify it.
We wanted dessert, just to keep the irresistible flavors coming. Affogato was just what we needed. The name, which means drowning in Italian, makes sense. Espresso is poured over gelato (we chose the biscotti hazelnut), essentially enveloping the ice cream, then topped with fresh whipped cream and cinnamon. It was served in a tall dish with a delicate cookie. In the end, we simply picked up the dish to drink the melted delicacy. Why not savor every drop? It’s that kind of place.