STYLE: New elegant surroundings with a sophisticated design and pleasing accents.
CUISINE: Old-World Italian classics and modern interpretations.
YOU'LL FIND: Traditional entrées and pastas, emphasis on local and organic foods, and awesome house-made desserts.
Towson is probably better known for its sushi bars and burger joints than for fine dining. Walk up and down the streets and you'll find lots of food groups that make the college crowd happy. But one restaurant stands out amid the storefront eateries—Café Troia.
The family-run operation has managed to turn out lovely Italian specialties for 24 years, catering to a loyal clientele of suburbanites and government workers seeking the niceties of tablecloths and expertly prepared dishes. The dining room may have been small and the bar cramped, but you could always count on a satisfying meal.
It would probably still be in the same location today if lease difficulties with new building owners hadn't arisen, forcing owners Carol Troia and her daughter Lisa Troia Martin to look for new quarters. They didn't have to go far.
In November, they moved directly across the street on Allegheny Avenue into a handsome new space with more tables, great windows, and a much larger bar area. A mellow beige color scheme, reflected in the terrazzo tile, walls, and linens, is soothing and sophisticated. In the evening, subtle lighting creates a romantic glow. There's also an area on the lower level for private functions.
Come summer, a deck off the back dining room promises outdoor relaxation, while glass doors in the front, thrown open to the street, will allow for great people-watching in the style of European trattorias. There's also valet car service, but if you've got quarters, a parking lot is right next-door. (Be vigilant till 9 p.m., though. Baltimore County's dedicated meter patrol does its job all too well.)
Behind the scenes is a state-of-the-art kitchen that allows the restaurant to continue serving favorite menu items while also expanding its offerings. There is now a more concentrated focus on natural and local foods, like eggs from Springfield Farm, free-range poultry, and wild, not farm-raised, fish. Thankfully, the food is still homey, old-fashioned, and, for the most part, well-executed. A perfectly al dente fettuccine with fragrant bolognese sauce (a hearty tomato-veggie-beef ragù) and a melt-in-your-mouth braciola (beef roulade with spinach, pine nuts, and Romano cheese in tomato sauce) with plump potato gnocchi transported us across the ocean to quaint Italian villages at dinnertime.
Not everything was a hit, though. A lunch dish of pan-seared fresh tuna over crisp salad greens with pretty burgundy raddichio featured paltry chunks of tuna that were dry and flavorless. A savory vegetable lentil soup had so much potential but was sadly tepid. And while our server apologized for the chilly bottle of Volpaia Chianti, we still had to wait for the wine to warm a bit to savor its full-bodied charms.
Interestingly, when we asked about wines, the server just rattled off several offerings and lost us during the recitation. Another time, we were given a wine list, so we know there is one.
These qualms aside, the highlights were bright and promising. The calamari Vesuvius took top honors. It's a favorite appetizer, our server assured us. Indeed. Beautiful rounds of fresh-from-the-sea squid (not the usual fried stuff) blended exquisitely with spicy tomato sauce with hot peppers. Use the accompanying grilled bread to sop up every last drop. We were also told you can get the calamari over pasta for a little bit more money. Nice!
The Caesar salad is a decent rendition with crunchy romaine and a pleasant egg-less (for those who worry about health issues) dressing and Parmesan, but it becomes stellar with the addition of Sicilian anchovies preserved in olive oil (well worth the extra $3 charge). A peppery arugula salad played terrifically off the sweet candied walnuts and a tangy goat-cheese dressing. And whatever you do, beg for the sautéed spinach as a starter or side. The bright-green baby spinach leaves are barely wilted in olive oil with slender garlic slices in the mix. It is one of those basic preparations that awes the palate.
The whims of the market dictate the fresh fish of the day. We were favored with a simply prepared but absolutely delicious branzino (European sea bass) fillet delicately napped in a mild, unobtrusive red-bell-pepper-and-onion sauce that didn't overwhelm the fish. But no matter how much food you have placed in your stomach, you're going to want one of the house-made desserts. They are worth many return visits.
The lemon Napoleon with several layers of flaky phyllo stuffed with an addictive, sweet-tart, lemon-curd-and-whipped-cream filling is my new favorite sweet. A cloud-like tiramisu, inexplicably unavailable on one visit, is also worthy of praise. The ethereal flavors of mascarpone, espresso, and Marsala meld in a captivating way. No less pleasing is a deeply rich Belgian chocolate flan.
The wait staff is professional, and many servers have been with the restaurant for years. That's probably why we were disappointed when the pace of our dinner lagged, while our waitress schmoozed with regular customers or hung out in the bar area with other staff. There was no refill of coffee, and we waited an overly long time to get our check. At one point, we just wanted to give up and feign sleep on the table or put on our coats to get some attention. We behaved, though, and just politely waved our hand when we finally caught her eye.
Troia may have become complacent in some areas, but after two decades, it still delivers a welcome dining reprieve to Towson patrons looking for comforting traditional Italian dishes, delectable sauces and pastas, and those amazing desserts. And the charming Troias, who often circulate the dining rooms chatting with diners, couldn't be more agreeable hosts.
Cafe Troia, 31 W. Allegheny Ave., Towson, 410-337-0133. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 5-10:30 p.m. Sat. Appetizers: $5-12.95; entrées, $14.50-34; desserts, $5.50-9.50.