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Italian Lessons

A North Baltimore restaurant covers the basics but offers few surprises

Sam Holden

La Famiglia

Address:105 West 39th Street
Baltimore, MD 21210

More on La Famiglia.

Open for lunch Monday through Friday, and dinner daily. We care how your meal was:

By Mary K. Zajac | Posted 6/24/2009

Walking into La Famiglia can confuse the senses. The newest restaurant to inhabit the Broadview looks a lot like its predecessor, Brasserie Tatin. It's still sleekly comfortable and retro-mod, with lashings of pumpkin and espresso colors on walls and upholstery (though the splashes of turquoise have been banished). But after a quick scan of the menu and a whiff of garlic-laced air, it would be easy to close your eyes and imagine yourself in a small, dark dining room where the tables are covered in red-checked tablecloths and topped with straw-clad Chianti bottles.

And there isn't a thing wrong with that. Who doesn't, on any given day, crave old-fashioned, Italian-American, Little Italy-style comfort food? And what neighborhood wouldn't want a trattoria-like joint within walking distance, an easy place to take a multi-generational family on a special occasion, perhaps, with a menu that will please your vegetarian daughter and your fussy father-in-law?

And La Famiglia will surely please some, including the Thursday night patrons who crowded the bar and the well-heeled, mature crowd who sipped martinis and manhattans while waiting for their penne alla vodka or saltimbocca alla romana. Others (OK, me) will be disappointed in a menu more conventional than inventive, that pays little attention to season and charges prices that seem more downtown than uptown.

"Seasonal" and "local" are certainly buzzwords in restaurant circles these days, so much so, that it's easy to forget the common sense that made them popular: that food tastes best when it's in season and eaten close to the source. So why offer something so dependent on freshness, like, say, a caprese salad ($9.25), and an expensive caprese salad, at that, when tomatoes aren't in season? It only lets the diner down (that said, the diner should have had the good sense not to order the salad out of season, but she was curious).

La Famiglia's version of caprese favored arugula over basil (not a bad substitution), and arrived standing up rather than lying down: a whole red tomato, sitting upright, sliced not quite through like an accordion file, with slices of mozzarella tucked between. It looked pretty, but had the tomato been ripe and the mozzarella suitably creamy, the presentation would have been in trouble. It just couldn't have been done. As one diner poetically commented, this salad "needed more sun."

Seafood appears all over La Famiglia's menu, beginning with the antipasti section in the requisite calamari fritti, shrimp served in garlic butter, or red- or white-sauced mussels. But La Famiglia feels like the kind of place where ordering clams casino ($9) isn't just attractive but mandatory, and they are just as old-school and satisfying as they ought to be with crisp crumbs and small scraps of bacon blanketing each small clam. A basic potato and leek soup ($7) was the soup of the day (minestrone is also offered).

Entrées at La Famiglia fall into predictable preparations. Veal and chicken are served piccata-style with capers and lemon sauce or al marsala with mushrooms (veal also comes al saltimbocca, topped with sage and prosciutto). Pastas come with pesto sauce or Bolognese or with vegetables in primavera or with seafood. There are veal chops and beef medallions. There is usually one risotto preparation and at least one special, though we needed to prompt our server to tell us what it was (halibut at $28, she told us, when pressed).

Zuppa di pesce ($22.50)--mussels, clams, calamari, and, a bit surprisingly, salmon, in a mild tomato broth spiked with fresh thyme--impressed most for the freshness of the seafood and the balanced seasoning. Less pleasing were over-sauced, over-lemony veal medallions al piccata ($23.75) (served with a side of spaghetti with marinara that appeared to be just chopped tomatoes) and a dish of fettucine alla Bolognese ($18.25) that was subtle to the point of negligible. Although the latter often gets misinterpreted as a hearty tomato/meat sauce akin to the filling of a sloppy joe, La Famiglia's version was just bland.

House-made desserts were similarly uneven. Creamy zabaglione-blanketed strawberries and blueberries ($6) had a frothy, wine-spiked richness that delighted in its simplicity. But the hazelnut and stracciatella gelati ($6.25) and the strawberry sorbet ($6.25), especially, were simply sweet. Reliable favorites like cheesecake, cannoli, and tiramisu are also on the dessert menu.

As in many restaurants, wine drinkers fare better here when choosing by the bottle than the glass (especially if one wants to drink Italian wine other than mass-produced Mezzacorona), and La Famiglia's wine list offers some affordable drinkable options. But offering Prosecco by the glass rather than the current Australian sparkler would be a thoughtful addition.

Service, too, could be a little more consistent. There are considerate touches like valet parking, the small print on the menu that offers "If you or someone with you feels that it is unsafe to drive, contact our manager and we will make arrangements to see you home safely," and owner Dino Zeytinoglu's visits to each table in his dapper suit. At the same time, it's hard to feel like a valued customer when your server asks how the meal is and starts looking elsewhere in the room as she waits for an answer.

La Famiglia isn't as much your neighborhood Italian restaurant as it is an Italian restaurant that happens to be in your neighborhood. Still, the restaurant is providing a service to North Baltimoreans who love the tradition of Little Italy, but don't want to drive downtown and park.

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