Wide Range of Styles, Flavors and Prices on Baltimore's Italian Scene
By Tamar Alexia Fleishman
Baltimore Local Expert
Italian food means something different to each person. In the Baltimore metro area, we have a wide variety of Italian fare to fit different moods, price points, styles and neighborhoods.
Charmingly, the vast percentage of the best of the best places have been family-owned for decades. Family is an integral concept to most Italians and to that end, sometimes there's nothing like being at home. But if you're not Italian or can't/won't cook, restaurants like Pizza John's and Trinacria Cafe have just enough house-made treats to help you fake it at your next get-together.
And, because Baltimore has its own delicious cuisine, it only makes sense that several of our Italian restaurants have a local flavor: places like Scoozi use farm-fresh local artisan cheeses on their charcuterie plates. Giovanni's has their own special recipes using local seafood.
For those jet-setter types, the latest in cooking tends, the finest of global gourmet ingredients that remind one of vacations in Italy's hot dining spots, such as Baltimore's Aldo's -- located in the heart of the city's Little Italy neighborhood -- is sure to meet the highest expectations. With exquisite touches like foie gras, Italian white peach puree for authentic Bellini drinks as served at Harry's Bar in Venice and professional servers in dinner jackets, you'll feel pampered without pretension or stuffiness.
Family-owned Pizza John's has been a favorite place to order pizza and pasta for the folks of eastern Baltimore County for just about 50 years now and it's easy to see why. Their operation is as heavily staffed and tightly run as a battleship kitchen or major hotel. You'll think you've stepped back in time with how clean and polite every one is!
The quality tops the chains for sure! They use fresh dough for pizza, freshly grated cheeses and slow-cooked homemade sauces. They also use fresh butcher-cut meat in their recipes. "The Works" is their famous pizza, with pepperoni, meat sauce (like their lasagna, opposed to traditional tomato sauce), sausage, onions, mushrooms, green peppers and black olives. If you're looking for something not so meaty, their white pizzas and pastas with butter and mushroom sauce are also very tasty. (410-687-0641)
Steps away from Baltimore's cultural district is the new cafe expression of Trinacria Italian Deli & Grocery -- a 100 year old family-owned business. It's open 8 am to 8 pm every day, even selling wine. It's hard to find a 7 day package goods store in Baltimore City!
Their delectable white pizza with spinach (you can also get plain or with broccoli) is thin, crispy, has good olive oil, and fried fresh spinach, along with lots of cheese.
Their meaty house-made lasagna tastes like a grandma came to your house . . . it incorporates their own house-made sweet sausage. More irresistible touches include the freshly baked garlic bread.
They have an abridged selection for retail of the grocery store, including wine. You can buy a bottle and drink it there without a corkage fee. (443-759-4082)
Hearty, classic food with generous portions has made Sabatino's popular for decades. Probably no matter what you order, you're taking home some for a great meal the next day. They open for lunch (with terrific specials), which not many Italian restaurants in the area do.
Start with their famous Bookmaker salad with house-made creamy vinaigrette.
Along with your entree -- though most people don't think about veggies when selecting Italian restaurants -- consider ordering Spinach a la Ralph. It's spinach sauteed in olive oil and garlic with pimentos, pepperoncini, prosciutto and olives: divine!
For an entree, they're famous for their many special veal dishes, but also have a good selection of poultry, beef and shrimp offerings. (410-727-2667)
Grano Pasta Bar
A space like this 50 years ago might have been used for a dark little corner bar. The menu here is short and sweet . . . the portions are too: European style. The place is BYOB, but that's not a problem, with a fine liquor store about a block away.
The place is so tiny, there's no storage space. So, everything is made to order, just for you! People sit on stools, like at any other bar. It's intimate without being furtive -- so it's a perfect first date place.
Start with a little salad; they make their own dressings. For your pasta, choose a shape and a complimentary sauce. They range from slow simmered meat sauces, seafood, creamy and even vegan options.
For dessert, the made on the premises tiramisu is highly recommended. (443-869-3429)
There's a certain magic when the ambiance is spacious yet warm and the cuisine is delicious. And still, Fazzini's is come as you are and right in the heart of suburbia!
Now that they're a taverna, a bar team has made a list of house top-shelf cocktails. The "Italian Love Affair" is their take on a drink that's wildly popular at the most exclusive beach resorts in Italy: the "Spritz".
Everything at Fazzini's Taverna is made in-house: freshly baked bread, wood-fired pizzas, pastas, sauces . . . everything. Their lasagna has real personality with a mix of beef and pork sausage, spicy tomato sauce and lots of gooey cheese.
Is it sacrilege that their Chicken Francaise is so luscious? An Italian restaurant? But the chicken breast is huge, crispy outside and juicy inside. You can get your side pasta as whole wheat linguini. (410-667-6104)
Giovanni's marries local favorite flavors with an Italian home-style menu. A deep green, grassy olive oil is set on the table for dipping: very authentic.
Seafood bisque has a delicate shrimp and lobster base, with Old Bay and lots of fresh seafood. Another great starter is their Crab Sorrento: clam shells are filled with crab meat, fennel seasonings and bread crumbs -- kind of a crab gratin, if you will.
Locals love their Veal Sinatra: it's a breaded veal cutlet topped with Proscuttini, sliced fresh tomatoes and mozzarella. It has a delicate mushroom and white wine sauce. It comes with homemade pasta and you can pick from a number of shapes. Ask them to make it like their house pasta course: sauteed with peppercinis, olives, pimentoes, onions, mushrooms and Italian spices!
Save room for their cheese pie dessert: this creamy, custardy cake was their aunt's recipe. (410-676-8100, 410-679-9797)
Baltimore's Radisson Cross Keys has a new, exciting trattoria-style restaurant: Scoozi.
On Tuesdays, from 5pm- 7pm, there's a dine-in ½ price pizza special. Especially recommended is the stone-hearth baked Kennet Square (sic) pizza with local wild mushrooms from up the road, as well as caramelized onions, roasted garlic, garlic-herb ricotta cream and white truffle oil. Kennett Square, PA is considered the "Mushroom Capital of the World". Their pizzas have thin, crunchy crusts -- as are common in Italy.
All the cheeses available for selection on the charcuterie plates are from some of Maryland's most premier artisan cheesemakers. The responsibly sourced seafood on the menu, including crab (in season) and clams, are from Maryland's Eastern Shore. The pork chops are locally raised. So, that's a taste of the area for those who are visiting.
Delectable, perfectly done pasta dishes are available in full and half portions. (410-321-0100)
Pazo has had a massive culinary change from Spanish tapas to Southern Italian small plates, but the pumpkin seed crispy snacks are still there! The dishes are as authentic as can be: a mild house-made ricotta timbale with fresh micro-greens is just like it would be served in places like Matera.
Mussels al Forno give your palette new excitement beyond the ubiquitous wine-garlic-lemon treatment.
House-made gourmet pizzas, starters and half-portions of pasta are all sized to allow you to explore more of the menu. Similarly, glasses of wine are also offered in two different pours. Wine expert Tony Foreman is also an owner of Pazo, so the selections and staff advice are top-notch. (410-534-7296)
It's fitting that this Harbor East restaurant is named for the Italian word for "wild boar": it's one of the city's finest places to find nose-to-tail cuisine and wild game, done Northern and Piedmont Italian style.
You'll trust Chef Julian Marucci with his more exotic offerings after experiencing the perfection of his Black Bass, pan roasted duck, etc. Regulars know that his rabbit is one of the best you'll ever eat.
Even desserts are wildly creative, including parsnip cheesecake, blue cheese gelato, spiced beet cake. The restaurant has two distinct sides: a fine dining, dressy Osteria and the casual (feel free to wear jeans or shorts as you munch on snacks of hand-cut charcuterie and wine) Enoteca. (410-547-8282)
Aldo's is considered by far and away the most gourmet restaurant in Baltimore's Little Italy. Family owned, Chef and son Sergio Vitale is a true foodie. He travels the world, checks out different restaurants, sources the very best in meats and local produce. Vitale is insistent on not drowning their natural goodness in butter and cream.
Not all beef carpaccios are created equal: Aldo's excels from the traditional with the addition of tonnato sauce, a mayo with tuna flavors! It's a surprisingly tasty pairing with beef. Apparently, it also fits into the paleo diet, if that's your thing. The interior of this classic Baltimore row home has been transformed to resemble an outdoor Italian restaurant, complete with sidewalk . . . but the "interior" tables are comfier and more private. (410-727-0700)
About Tamar Alexia Fleishman
It takes a Renaissance woman to cover cool, shocking, tasty and thought-provoking things. Tamar was a professional violinist, studying with Daniel Heifetz at Peabody Conservatory, serving as Principal Second with Annapolis Symphony. She earned her BA in Political Science from Goucher, her JD from the University of Baltimore and is a member of the Maryland Bar. She’s appeared on TV with Bill Maher, Greta Van Susteren and Peter Frampton. A foodie, she’s judged the Roadkill Cookoff, the International Water Tasting Fest, the Mason-Dixon Chef Tournament. Tamar’s a Kentucky Colonel, a beauty pageant winner and managed Southern rock and alt-country bands.
Read more about Tamar Alexia Fleishman here.