What turns a seemingly cursed restaurant spot into a success? There's no easy answer. Just look at the worthwhile building at the corner of Boston Street and Montford Avenue in Canton, where Hollywood Burger Bistro is now trying to make a go of it after multiple predecessors, or the recently vacated Diablita Cantina on Central Avenue near Little Italy that once housed Tsunami. Sadly, there are a number of others to add to that jinxed list.
One venue at 1200 N. Charles Street in Mt. Vernon was on the verge of facing the same vexing situation after two restaurants quickly folded there—that is, until Sam Curreri opened Sammy's Trattoria in 2006.
As the popular Italian restaurant gets ready to celebrate its fifth anniversary in June, we decided to revisit the dining room and see if the magic is still holding up. It is indeed. The formula for thriving may be tied to its freshly prepared, hearty southern Italian cuisine (think lasagna and spaghetti and meatballs), multiple price points, and a diligent owner, who was once a longtime general manager at Chiapparelli's.
On a recent weekend night, the soaring space, painted in a soothing goldenrod hue with a long wood bar and wrought-iron details, was as crowded as a grocery store before a snowstorm. Of course, we had inadvertently picked a "theater night," which drew an early-dinner crowd heading to a performance at the nearby Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. But even after the theater-goers fled for the 8 p.m. show, diners were still drifting in, and a large celebratory party took up most of the first floor. We were seated on the second-floor balcony level and perched for prime-time viewing of the action below.
Our waitress was an accomplished juggler, asking us immediately if we were going to the theater. We weren't. But she was ready to feed us in a timely fashion and send us on our way if such was the case. She still served us in a well-paced manner, but there wasn't a deadline involved. She looked relieved.
There aren't too many surprises on the menu, and this familiarity and consistency have probably fueled the restaurant's fan base. One of the signature starters is sausage and broccoli rabe. Interestingly, a Baltimore magazine reviewer wrote in a 2006 review of Sammy's: "Another appetizer was pure southern Italian peasant food at its best: deep green, slightly bitter broccoli rabe sautéed in garlic and studded with enormous chunks of very good, spicy sausage." We enthusiastically agree with that assessment today.
Shrimp scampi comes as an appetizer or entree. We can only imagine its girth as a main dish. The starter featured three sizeable shrimp happily glazed with the traditional garlicky-butter-white-wine sauce. The fried calamari were bountiful and suited to the zesty marinara sauce. Even the crisp Julia house salad offered a perk to the romaine—a slice of salami lounging on top. Baltimoreans always debate the merits of the dressing at Chiapparelli's and Sabatino's. We think they need to consider Sammy's delicious creamy version, too.
Entrees are super-sized and come heaped with homemade sauces, freshly made pastas, and chunky veggies. Even a simple bolognese jumbles a mix of meats like beef, pork, and veal into a flavorful ragù tangled with pappardelle—long, flat noodles that were as delicate as a newborn's skin. You wonder how the chef was able to form these strands without tearing them. And to give you an idea about portion size, we had enough food for two leftover dinners!
The chicken Marsala was pounded into sweet submission and splayed on the plate with a sweet amber wine sauce and enough mushrooms to have bolstered the finances of the farmer. We tried veal two ways—veal Parmesan and Judge K's veal—and couldn't trick up the kitchen. Both cutlets were as thin as pancakes and could almost be cut with the tap of a fork.
The veal Parm followed its heritage with lightly breaded meat baked with mellow cheese and cloaked with homemade tomato sauce. Judge K, whoever he is, must have simple tastes. His namesake veal was treated to fresh tomatoes, basil, and a plethora of sautéed wild mushrooms.
Desserts can be a struggle after succumbing to such a feast. The homemade tiramisu is a worthy contender with a cushion of espresso-Frangelico-spiked sponge cake snuggled like a little sister between two protective brothers of whipped mascarpone. The chocolate fudge cake with vanilla-bean ice cream was the stuff of brownie fantasies, and the pumpkin cheesecake successfully made use of the seasonal gourd.
Sammy's Trattoria is definitely poised for many more years of operation. The words of owner Sam Curreri in a 2007 Baltimore story on first-time restaurateurs seem prescient in 2011:
"From almost day one, my friends and family were anxious about me opening," he said at the time. But he had a dream: "I wanted to create a place that will grow as a family and that I will grow old with."