Juniors Wine Bar in Federal Hill created quite a buzz when it took over the space where the wildly popular Vespa had been, expanded the tiny dining room to the rear, and proceeded to serve a creative Cal-Ital menu. Then, it seemed to stumble as it searched for an identity. A change in chef and menu didn't help. And before you could say, "Ciao," Juniors was gone, quietly taken over by a restaurant group that includes Brian McComas of Ryleigh's Oyster, which is right around the corner.
The open kitchen soon became the domain of executive chef Christopher Patternote, formerly of the now-closed VIN in Towson. He immediately began trying out dishes in the space temporarily dubbed "Test Kitchen" until Taverna Corvino's signage was ready. (Corvino means "black raven," according to McComas.) It was a turn-key transition with the interior staying much the same. You still walk into the bar area and then proceed up a step to the dining room, where bare tables and dark, warm hues greet customers, bistro style.
The menu has an Italian influence, but it's inspired in the hands of Patternote, offering dishes like grilled octopus with garlic escarole and 30-year-old balsamic vinegar and grilled lamp chops marinated in juniper. The restaurant takes a novel step in its presentation of courses, offering most dishes as small plates or family platters. For instance, you can order a single portion of sautéed mussels for $9 or the larger size for $31.
There is a catch, though, and this might not appeal to everyone, especially diners who prefer their meal served in sequence. The food comes to the table when it's ready. Our server warned us about the unstructured delivery, and she wasn't kidding. Be prepared to get your baked prawns before your caprese salad, your risotto before the soup.
At least, everyone starts on a level playing field with a piquant olive-asparagus tapenade and fresh-from-the-oven baguette slices. Then, the food onslaught begins. But it's fun and communal. If you want a participatory meal that unites a group or breaks the ice on a first date, this is it!
The antipasti is a good way to get the taste buds revved up. A thick wood board is artfully arranged with prosciutto, speck, mixed olives, hard-boiled egg wedges, pickled peppers, cheeses, and more. (Taverna's cheeses come from Tastings Gourmet Market in Annapolis, which specializes in artisanal, farmstead, and imported varieties.)
The restaurant also has a cheese plate featuring such temptations as gorgonzola, pecorino, and garrotxa (a goat's-milk cheese with a hint of nuttiness from Spain). But on any given day, the offerings could be different and, we bet, just as interesting.
By now, our table had become a rollicking ruckus of small plates. Some we passed around as finger food. Others we just dug into with a fork. All were impressive. The ethereal Roseda meatballs—Can intensely flavored beef be light and airy? Yes!— were great in and of themselves, but we couldn't get enough of the accompanying marsala-cream sauce.
We finished them just in time for our gorgeous asparagus salad with charred pearl onions in a delicate sherry vinaigrette, topped by the pièce de résistance, a squishy poached egg. We got to sample the kitchen's fresh-made pasta in the veal lasagna, which is served attractively in a small, cast-iron skillet. The noodles were so thin and tender that they seemingly melted in your mouth with the hearty meat mixture.
Another standout was the soup of the day—chilled cucumber with apples, a creamy purée that blended the veggie and tart fruit wonderfully. We also like the fried oysters, crispy nuggets served with a fennel-and-orange salad and kalamata olive aioli, and a snow-white rockfish fillet in a subtle tomato-saffron sauce. We also shared flavorful veal cheeks paired nicely with soft polenta hinting of basil and red-wine onions.
Our server stressed that the menu often changes, depending on what's fresh and available at the market. "We keep as much local as we can," she shared. This probably explains why the chef can define and expand his cooking repertoire with a constantly rotating cast of ingredients. There are also panini sandwiches (including pancetta, Italian hoagie, and meatball) served with farro (a grain similar to spelt) salad on the menu.
A variety of Old World and New World wines are available to pair with your plates. There are several whites, reds, and bubblies by the glass or bottle.
At first, we were struck by the bottle prices—cheap by restaurant standards. Then, our waitress broke the news. That's the retail cost and you have to add a $10 corkage fee. Still, it's a bargain in most cases. If you'd like something fancier, the server will be happy to fetch something from the front bar, like a peach Bellini, a delightful apértif that speaks of lazy summer days.
Desserts are made in-house, and there were three the night we visited. We tried them all. Happily, there wasn't a disappointing one in the bunch.
The most interesting was the zeppole, a fried dough similar to an Italian street doughnut or carnival fritter. Instead of being round, these were squiggled through a pastry tube in an oblong shape. Hot, fluffy, and dusted with cinnamon, the puffs were definitely a treat. We also savored a pretty tiramisu and mascarpone mousse with strawberries saturated in balsamic vinegar.
We left stuffed and sated. We're glad that chef Patternote found his niche at this fun Federal Hill dining spot. We hope Baltimore diners will support him as he puts his own spin on Italian fare.
But maybe the restaurant has already claimed victory. Servers wear black T-shirts, proclaiming, "Veni, Vedi, Vesci," which, in English, means "I came, I saw, I ate.