We barely had time to mourn the closing of the popular Federal Hill restaurant The Bicycle when chef/owner Nicholas Batey turned around and opened Ullswater in the late fall with his wife Saundra. In their new South Baltimore digs, the couple has taken a step back from fancier fare to concentrate on affordable entrees that will appeal to the neighborhood trade.
The menu is mostly Italian-inspired with familiar classics uplifted with pristine ingredients. But we have to say that, while the food works, we think the restaurant's name is a stumble, even if the intention is admirable. The chef says he finds inspiration in a painting of England's Lake Ullswater.
Versions of the artwork are tucked here and there in the cozy, two-story space that joins Baltimore's growing number of dining establishments fashioned out of row houses. While we can understand the work's soothing presence, the placid scene has nothing to do with the restaurant's predominant pasta offerings.
But once you've absorbed the idea of a restaurant in Baltimore named after a British body of water serving Italian cuisine, you're ready to settle in at this comfortable trattoria in restful tones of cocoa, apricot, and celadon. You enter into the front bar area, where there can be a bit of a logjam as guests check in with the hostess and then are led to seats in the back.
The dining rooms are narrow, intimate affairs with small tables—covered in white cloths and topped with white paper, bistro style—barely accommodating the big plates heaped with food. There's a convivial buzz on a crowded weekend night—we had a grandma and newly engaged couple next to us getting to know each other better. It was sweet. And that's just part of the vibe.
The wait staff is genuinely helpful, though the runners who deliver the food were never quite sure who got what. Once we directed the right plate to the right person, we dug into Ullswater's mozzarella sticks, an innovative turn on the bar standard. In this version, the filling—oozy mild mozzarella, prosciutto, and chopped basil—is wrapped with a crisp phyllo dough to be dipped into a chunky arrabiatta sauce (which makes an appearance in several other dishes).
The fried calamari—another pub-grub snack—were gently breaded, allowing the sweet rings of squid to shine through. The mound of tender rounds came with the tangy arrabiatta sauce and a mild lemon-pepper aioli.
The chicken Marsala brought home the kitchen's nurturing preparations. Thick strands of al dente spaghetti, laced with wild mushrooms, were a soft cushion for two chicken fillets glistening with an earthy porcini-Marsala sauce. The three-cheese tortelloni with mushrooms was another dish worthy of nonna's house.
Honestly, we ate the tortelloni heartily and still had leftovers for two nights. The pasta—plumped with rich, creamy cheese—intermingled with fresh baby spinach, tomato chunks, and green onions in a cream sauce tinged with sherry. It got even more decadent with the addition of colossal shrimp (for an extra $6 charge, but well worth it).
Desserts are not an afterthought here. The cannoli duo—one stuffed with vanilla-bean ricotta and mini chocolate chips; the other with pistachios—can easily be shared. But you'll probably want to keep the wedge of hazelnut-chocolate torte for yourself. It's that divine.
We're not sure why the restaurant is calling itself a wine bar. There are some nice selections—divided into Italian and non-Italian offerings—with reasonably priced wines by the glass, $6-9. But there doesn't seem to be a particular emphasis on pours or pairings.
At lunchtime, you're likely to be tended to by Saundra, who treats diners like guests in her home. (In the evening, she's usually busy handling patrons at the front reception stand.) She checks in with tables frequently, grinding fresh pepper, sharing that the green-bean salad is a family dish, and delivering clean utensils.
During the day, the downstairs dining room catches sunlight from large side windows, making it a relaxing place to take a break. We started with the aforementioned salad, a chilled mountain of just-cooked beans tossed with pancetta, tomatoes, radicchio, balsamic-glazed onions, goat cheese, and pine nuts. We can understand why the Batey clan is proud of this recipe.
There are assorted sandwiches, served with generous side salads, as well as full-size entrees. The spaghetti and meatballs featured whopper meatballs, the size of baby fists. We thought we had asked for marinara sauce, but our dish arrived slathered in bolognese (meat sauce). It was quite good, though we would have preferred just the tomato sauce.
The roasted vegetable sandwich was heavy with portobello mushrooms, tomatoes, red onions, and red peppers. But we were a little disappointed that the ingredients were stuffed into a soft roll, not the advertised rosemary foccacia bread.
The sweet sausage, peppers, and onion sub was just the knockout you would expect with melted provolone cheese and the kitchen's arrabiatta sauce overflowing from a chewy roll.
The restaurant may be slightly out of the mainstream, but it's worth the trek (do persevere for parking) to enjoy the Bateys' dedication to well-prepared food served in friendly surroundings.