Size Isn't Everything
Little Italian Kitchen Serves Big-League Food
On Saturday night my wife and I went down to Little Italy for dinner. The restaurant was jam-packed. It took something like 20 minutes to get our order placed and nearly an hour (and a complaint to the manager) to secure our appetizers. (We weren't alone; an MIA soup order was a running joke at the table on my left and the party on my right left in frustration after a long wait for their entrées.) The food ranged from so-so to superb, but it was hardly a relaxing night out.
On Sunday night my wife and I went up to Cockeysville for dinner. Relative to its size, Fazzini's Italian Kitchen was just as packed as the place we'd been the night before. In the time it took to get our apps in Little Italy, we'd polished off dinner for two and gotten carry-out for the next day's lunch. The food ranged from so-so to superb, and came with considerably less frazzle.
OK, it's all too easy to riff on overcrowded, overrated Little Italy. But this wasn't one of those tired, coasting-on-rep chow farms we visited Saturday night--it was one of the much-praised newer joints that hype homemade pasta and nouvelle cookery. And while the culinary-oasis-in-the-strip-mall-desert is almost a cliché in a budget-conscious column such as this, it bears noting that in our weekend of dining out Italian-style, we'd gotten just as good a meal at Cranbrook Shopping Center as on the east side of President Street, at considerably less cost in terms of both money and stress. Not that tourists are likely to start flocking up York Road, which is probably just fine with the locals, a steady stream of which were filling up Fazzini's dozen tables and coming in for take-out during our visit.
Fazzini's started us off with a basket of spongy homemade Italian bread while we started ourselves off with a couple of glasses of the red Côtes du Rhone we'd brought from home. (The family-run restaurant doesn't sell alcohol but allows, even encourages patrons to bring their own.) The appetizers soon followed. A small Caesar salad ($1.99) was distinguished by freshly grated Parmesan and a refreshingly nonassertive dressing. We also tried the soup of the day, vegetable bisque ($3 as a special), which was so good we ordered a second batch to take home. Texturally, the creamy broth was on the thin side, but it provided a rich, buttery base for spoonfuls of chopped broccoli, mushrooms, tomato, carrots, and red onions.
The entrée menu provided several temptations, including the intimidating "Pound of Pasta"--linguini, fettuccine, or rigatoni with a choice of sauce ($6.99 to $8.95). We also considered the shrimp fra diavalo for reference-point purposes, the fra diavalo of the previous night's excursion having disappointed, but at $12.25--tied for the most expensive item on the regular menu--it was a bit north of the Cheap Eats needle. Instead my wife chose the spinach-potato ravioli ($8.50). The vegetable-and-cheese filling didn't shout out its flavors as much as I'd have liked, but the pasta tasted ultra-fresh and was swimming in an outstanding marinara, with flecks of basil so big you could taste them individually.
I opted for the shrimp-parmiagiana sub ($6.95), which deliciously subverted every paradigm of this normally gloppy, overdone sandwich style. A sub roll baked to perfect crispness was filled with four or five big gulf shrimp, the light breading accenting rather than overwhelming their flavor. The shrimp were topped with just the right amount of mozzarella and slathered with some of that terrific marinara. It's been a long time since I had a parm sub this good. It came with chips and a pickle, but I was too busy with the sandwich to get around to them.
We finished off with a to-go order of chicken giovanni ($10.45), which easily made for two meals later in the week. Three chicken breasts were pounded piccata-thin, sautéed, and served up in a lemony white-wine sauce with provolone and a generous mound of spinach (plus a side of linguini marinara--abbondanza, already!).
Feeling full, we passed on several tempting-sounding (albeit not homemade) desserts, but I was unable to resist taking home a box of "Aunt Fanny's Honey-Nut Bars" ($6), which are homemade, and which are also spectacularly good--flaky dough bases layered with a thick, sweet, gooey, caramel coating and festooned with mixed nuts. They're like Snickers bars on cookies, and they're worth a drive to Cockeysville all by themselves (but call ahead--they're not always in stock).
Then again, Fazzini's home-style cooking provides myriad incentives for that drive up York Road. This is one little Italian restaurant that cuts much of Little Italy to smithereens.