Hitting the Sauce
Pulling Up a Stool at Hampden's New Pasta Bar
One woman wore a BUSH OR CHIMP? T-shirt. The other, a less-opinionated striped number. They sat at the counter at the tiny, cornflower-blue Grano, Baltimore's first pasta bar, chatting with the staff, a nearly empty bottle of Beefeater gin between them. ("It was full when they came in," one of the waitstaff joked good-naturedly.) Our party of four was contemplating how we might squeeze into the back corner table, the only one of Grano's three tables available at 7 p.m. on a busy Thursday night, when the same staff member made a suggestion: Might the counter ladies switch places with us?
Of course, they said, as they gingerly climbed down from their stools, cocktails in hand.
"Is this your first time here?" Political T-shirt asked us.
We nodded yes.
"You're gonna love it," she promised. "Try the gazpacho."
"We're regulars," Striped T-shirt volunteered.
That a new restaurant can have regulars after being opened a mere five months is a testament to Grano's food and hospitality (overseen by Baltimore restaurateur Gino Troia) and to its customers' willingness to accommodate as well as be accommodated. For if Grano is a little bit Hampden and a little bit Napoli, it's also a whole lotta frantic. (The back of the menu promises, "Ready to eat in seven minutes," in four languages; I didn't time them, but that seems about right.) Eating dinner at the restaurant--especially at the counter--can feel like a race to the finish line, but only because of the pace of the activity buzzing around you, not because anyone is rushing you through your dinner. (A friend characterized the place as "like a diner, except without seats.") It's also kind of like hanging out in a friend's kitchen for dinner, except that friend is trying to feed 50 people instead of just four.
The concept works like this: Diners mix and match from among eight pastas, nine sauces, three salads, and a handful of specials including a soup of the day. Taking the ladies' advice, we ordered gazpacho ($6), Caesar salad ($6), and the day's appetizer special, calamari Vesuvio ($7.95), squid simmered in their own ink and a spicy tomato broth. By the time our server opened the bottle of wine we brought (the restaurant is BYOB with a $2 corkage fee) and apologized for lack of glassware as he handed out plastic cups, the appetizers were up.
They were was right about the gazpacho: The depth of flavor matched its brick-red color, and while sometimes the garlic in gazpacho can be overwhelming, this version was nicely balanced between tomato, garlic, and cucumber. Slender shards of pecorino romano cut from a small wheel of cheese sitting behind the counter and plump croutons dotted the creamily dressed Caesar. But the person who ordered the Vesuvio hit the jackpot. Cooking the rings in the ink and sauce gave the whole dish a rich, dusky flavor, and it's been a very long time since I've had calamari this expertly cooked, yielding tenderness rather than chewiness.
Grano's DIY concept extends to the garlic bread ($2), wherein thin slices of bread sit alongside a roasted head of garlic and a slick of olive oil. As we squeezed and dipped, behind the counter, the short-order pasta chef displayed a dizzying grace as he browned pancetta for carbonara sauce in one pan, and tossed olives, garlic, capers, and tomatoes for puttanesca sauce in another. Bolognese bubbled lazily on a third burner. On the fourth, a pot of perpetually boiling water cooked eight ounces of pasta in a conical sieve.
We paired spaghetti with both the carbonara ($9.95) and the puttanesca ($8.95), the former salty and rich with eggy clumps of pancetta, the latter chunky and juicy with tomatoes and the echo of melted anchovies. Bolognese ($10.95) was hearty in texture, yet deftly subtle in flavor (and the right choice for gnocchi [$2 extra]), while the fusilli with gorgonzola walnut butter sauce ($10.95) was all richness tempered by the walnuts' crunch.
Desserts are made in house and, if you have room after consuming a half-pound of pasta, worth sampling. The tiramisu ($4.50) is outrageously light for a four-inch-high layered dessert. Burnt sugar gives coconut flan ($3.75) a pleasing hint of toffee flavor, and the cannoli ($3.50) is what a cannoli should be--crispy on the outside with not too sweet top-quality ricotta within.
If you cook pasta regularly at home, you might think you don't need to wedge yourself into a table at Grano, and that's a fair assessment: The food at Grano is what a good home chef would make at home if ingredients, time, and desire prevailed. But if you stay home, you'll miss the charming staff (who packed up a mere few tablespoons of the Vesuvio sauce with a wink and without rancor because one diner couldn't bear to see it thrown out), the progression of young guys in '70s beards eating alone with the newspaper, and, of course, the counterladies. Even if you opt for carry-out, it's worth stopping by and asking them what's good.