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Rolling in the Isles

Ristorante Due Isole Delivers Delights From the Italian Islands

Christopher Myers

Ristorante Due Isole

This location is closed

By Richard Gorelick | Posted 1/21/2004

Sicily and Sardinia are the two islands honored in the name Ristorante Due Isole , the new restaurant that very recently opened where the Greek place Opa! used to be. (Perhaps you've seen the new red neon sign out front--RISTORANTE ITALIANO. I love it.) These are the native islands of, respectively, the owner and the executive chef. The Sicilian in question is Carmelo Fertitta, a familiar figure from his seafood stall at Broadway Market. The Sardinian is his son-in-law Fabio Mura, who studied cooking back in Italy and who put pleats in his toque in several Baltimore restaurants. Together they've created, with their wives, a modest-seeming restaurant with what I think is immodest potential.

Of the two dining rooms here, the one where we didn't sit looks a bit cozier, a bit warmer. Freshly painted with murals evoking Mediterranean scenes and characters, the rooms have a white-tablecloth formality, but here's how you can tell that Due Isole is, at heart, an informal Italian restaurant: I think it's always a good sign when my companions begin to believe that the restaurant has somehow "caught on" to the fact that we're reviewing them--"I think they must know. The owner keeps coming by the table to check on us, and we keep getting free stuff." But the funny thing is, they never know--it's just something good restaurateurs do. It's called making customers happy.

The first free stuff to arrive is a plate of pane carasau, the archetypal Sardinian flatbreads also known as carta da musica (sheet music) for, various sources say, its crinkly appearance or the crinkly noise it makes when it's chewed upon. Served with a coarsely chopped tomato salad, these unleavened breads are simple and plain, a cross between pita chips and matzo.

The menu's 10 or so appetizers are mostly seafood-based--a broiled crab cake with roasted garlic horseradish sauce ($10), fried calamari ($9). We ordered a version of calamari that had them grilled and kebabed ($10)--a good move. Thin, curving slices--not rings--from the mantle had been lightly peppered before having their tough texture grilled into an ideal chewiness. An appetizer of carpaccio ($9) worked mostly because the thin slices clearly came from a good piece of raw beef fillet, but the accompanying arugula salad and slivers of Parmigiano-Reggiano were choice, too. The lemon caper sauce was fine and fresh-tasting if not quite take-notice.

These appetizers were blameless, but it was the arrival of the entrées that sealed the deal for us. We selected from across a menu that includes a half-dozen choices of pasta, seafood, and meat-based dishes, and were disappointed with nothing, delighted with almost everything.

Lamb fans will appreciate the rack of lamb ($26) here. The way-suckable bones have been left intact, but the tender and lean lamb meat has been carved off, encrusted with a walnut-mustard mixture and plated separately. A praiseworthy creamy brandy sauce is flecked with pungent little pink dried berries. They were new to us, and we liked how well they complemented the aromatic meat.

A dish of black linguine ($18) was tossed with chunks of salmon, along with fresh arugula and walnuts in a creamy vodka sauce. My friend liked his choice a lot but didn't quite love it; but I suspect this was due more to his envy of our entrées than any shortcoming in his pasta dish. One of the other pastas, perhaps the spaghetti frutti di mare ($18), may have produced more excitement.

Mixed seafood kebabs ($24) testified to the kitchen's grilling skills. One skewer held healthy hunks of tuna, salmon, and cod, the other shrimp and calamari. Not one thing was over- or undergrilled, and seasoning was minimal, only a light breading to keep the fish from sticking to the grill. All very good, including the julienne vegetables, which also accompanied other entrées.

Chef Fabio has a signature dish, though, and it's fabulous. The zuppa di pesce Due Isole ($25) is a bottomless bowl of fish stew--clams, mussels, scallops, calamari, and shrimp, all mixed with julienne vegetables in a mildly seasoned, simmering tomato broth. The whole unfinishable thing is then topped off with a puff pastry crust, so when it comes to your table it looks like a big, (very) deep-dished apple pie. The crust is flaky, the seafood plentiful (and then some--really, it's like something out of Caligula), and you could conceivably enjoy it until midnight.

But give it up for commendably creamy homemade desserts--a lustrous panna cotta ($5) and a light cheesecake made with ricotta ($5). Complimentary postprandials--sambuca and limoncello--were a crowning touch. Due Isole could turn out to be--let's hope so, anyway--a find.

Molto bene:

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