The neon sign out front is a bright jolt in the staid Homewood neighborhood near The Johns Hopkins University. But it's our first clue that La Famiglia is seeking its own identity in the spot formerly occupied by Brasserie Tatin.
The biggest change, of course, is the switch from French cuisine to Italian. Inside, though, the décor is much the same. The cascading strings of tiny white lights still dangle romantically in the bar area, and the black, sparkly tables beckon appealingly in the dining room. The restaurant has a comfortably elegant, modern vibe.
New owner Dino Zeytinoglu, or Dino as everyone familiarly calls him, is an omnipresence. Dapper and eager, he's a whirl of motion, greeting people pleasantly and scurrying around the dining room. Zeytinoglu is a transplant from Boccaccio—the Little Italy restaurant that's been shuttered since its owner's death last summer—and he's lured some of the Eastern Avenue crew to help with the new establishment.
But we sensed the weight of the venture on his genial shoulders as we watched him charging through the restaurant and sprinting in and out of the kitchen. That man can move. On one visit, the hostess shared that the restaurant was slammed that night. Maybe that explained our disastrous service.
Our silver-haired waiter, decked out in de rigueur black and white, was curt, uninterested, and left us dangling at the table, long after our leftover desserts were starting to get stale. His completely unrepentant excuse with, we swear, a roll of the eyes was, "I got lost." What? The dining room isn't that big. And we could see him waiting tables on the other side.
That said, we don't think that's indicative of the servers there. On another visit, we had a pleasant, efficient waitress, who took the time to answer questions, brought a peppermill to the table, inquired about our meals, and noticed empty plates and glasses. We're glad that she restored our faith for many reasons, but mostly because we want to like this sweet, earnest restaurant, which turns out some fine Northern Italian fare.
We usually steer away from plates for two. But the antipasti "per due" proved to be a generous selection of various appetizers: escargot in garlic butter covered with a crunchy film of crust, garlicky sautéed shrimp, fried calamari, clams casino with fat squares of bacon, and toasty garlic bread (in case you haven't had enough of the pungent bulb). The portions were divided on two plates, much to our appreciation.
The starter dish also included a bowl of steamed, tender mussels in a garlicky (of course!) butter sauce to share—though that item wasn't listed on the menu. (And, no, we weren't recognized as reviewers. See above: could-care-less waiter.)
We're traditionalists, so we had to sample the Caesar salad. It was an unassuming, honest interpretation with spring-green romaine, generous slivers of Parmesan, and a subtle vinaigrette dressing with a tang of balsamic. The spinach salad was also a decent plateful of perky greens and mushrooms gently coated with just-warm-enough red-vinegar dressing that didn't wilt the leaves.
The menu is smartly priced with entrees under $29, though specials of the day can run higher. Our waitress, thankfully, made sure to tell us that the Dover sole was $48.
On our first go-round to the restaurant, we had a plump grouper fillet with brown lemon sauce and a 14-ounce veal chop, impressively stacked on its side, with healthy, roasted vegetables—long, flat ribbons of red peppers, zucchini, and eggplant. Both dishes came with a vegetable of the day—green beans.
Here's where we began to notice the kitchen's love of salt. The buttery green beans were loaded with it as was the fish, which got a double whammy from a tad too much Old Bay. The veal, however, was a hunk of meat heaven—smoothly textured and succulent.
We also noticed on a return trip that the broccoli was overly salted to the extent that it interrupted the delicate flavors of the chicken saltimbocca and veal in piccata caper sauce. Still, the scaloppine slices of meat were moist and tender.
The saltimbocca was true to form with musty sage and cured prosciutto layered on the chicken. And the veal benefited from briny capers the size of peas. Since our visits, entrees come with a side of pasta with marinara sauce. (Vegetables are a la carte.)
There are several other pasta dishes if you're carb-loading, including penne in vodka sauce, fettuccine alla Bolognese, and linguine with pesto sauce. We found the spaghetti with seafood, lightly tossed with marinara, to be a fresh, filling rendition of a dish that's on just about every Italian menu. Juicy mussels, clams, shrimp, calamari, and scallops were liberally tangled with the al dente pasta. It's so simple that it's perfect.
We know. Cannolis are so predictable. But La Famiglia's—made in house, as are all the desserts—is a praiseworthy indulgence with sweet, fluffy ricotta, dotted with mini chocolate chips, and enveloped in a flaky pastry shell that splits easily with the nudge of a fork. We also enjoyed countering all the garlic with a soothing, creamy zabaglione with ripe blackberries, blueberries, and strawberries laced throughout. The tiramisu and chocolate mousse cake were decent sweets but too chilly to burst with intense flavor.
We love that there is an outpost of Little Italy in Northern Baltimore. And it's always so chic for a restaurant to take up residence in a stately Art Deco apartment building (The Broadview at Roland Park). There's also complimentary valet parking or a lot across the street for visitors' convenience.
So we're encouraged. Once the kitchen hides the salt shaker and gives a pep talk to some of its servers, we see the restaurant impressing diners as much as its owner Dino already does.