Della Notte Provides an Extravagant Setting and Tasteful Cuisine
When gambling comes to Inner Harbor East, it won't take too much to convert Della Notte into a boutique casino. You've probably noticed this exuberant, outsized Little Italy restaurant, which opened about five years ago on the prominent corner of Eastern Avenue and President Street. Something about Della Notte's size and, well, gaudiness seemed to warn off a lot of people, myself included, who decided without ever having dined there that Della Notte was not a restaurant for them.
We've all been unwise. Not only is the food fine--sometimes better--at Della Notte, but those swooping curves and expanses, which look so silly on the outside, help make the restaurant's insides feel pretty damn nice. Don't get me wrong--the wide, high-ceilinged interior is flamboyant, theatrical, even operatic; there's an enormous tree in the middle of the circular main dining room--but the color palette is restrained; the music plays at bearable, conversation-permitting levels; and the exceptionally well-designed lighting flatters both the room and the diners. It's a fine room for small family groups, such as the charming and indulgent multigenerational clan I rented for the evening.
The menu that Della Notte bills as "innovative and traditional Italian cuisine" turns out to be a well-planned and appealing offering of pastas, seafood, chicken, and veal. Unlike some neighboring restaurants, there aren't endless selections here, and some ingredients--cremini mushrooms, scallops of veal, sweet pork sausage--appear in numerous dishes, a sign, perhaps, that the kitchen has not been overburdened with endless preparations of myriad foodstuffs, or that some least-loved ingredients aren't withering in the walk-in.
Della Notte bakes its breads on the premises, and we were pleased that a different type of bread--one with a chewy crust, one bursting with semolina--was brought to the table in every basket. We liked, too, that olive oil was provided for dipping, but so was sweet butter, which is these days often kept cruelly separated from loaves of crusty bread.
Of the appetizers and salads we ordered, the most successful came from the specials menu, which is where Della Notte trots out its more innovative--and expensive--creations. We loved our little quail ($13) stuffed with foie gras, rice, and cremini mushrooms, pan-seared and topped with a roasted-shallot jus over grilled polenta. The bird was tender and sweet, the filling creamy and mild, even as the foie gras failed to make much of an impression.
Salads were slightly less successful, perhaps suffering from Sunday-night fatigue. Our search for a great Caesar salad in Baltimore continues--Della Notte's Caesar ($5) was both underdressed and zestless, the lettuce not crisp enough. There was nothing amiss about a special salad consisting of hearts of romaine ($9) topped with a gorgonzola-laced buttermilk dressing and tossed with pine nuts and oranges, but neither did it thrill us.
Entrées were across-the-board praiseworthy. Until I was left conspicuously alone with it following a weirdly aggressive Clearing of the Plates--the sole misstep in a well-timed, professionally served meal--my linguine with clam sauce ($17.50) had been a real pleasure. The garlicky sauce was filled with plump littlenecks and about a dozen more clams in the shell rimmed a bowl of well-cooked pasta.
Among the other entrées, pollo Umbertino ($17) topped an exceptionally tender filleted chicken breast with asparagus, artichoke hearts, tomatoes, and mozzarella, textures and flavors that blended sweetly in a sherry sauce. Veal Marsala dressed two scallops of veal--one perfect, one a bit tough--with a hearty, woodsy wine sauce that a Marsala fan said ranked high on her list.
Best of everything may have been an outstandingly assembled crab cake ($18), ordered from among a reception of specials. About the size of a hamburger and clearly full of lump meat, it was almost completely unadulterated by breading or filler and baked a lovely golden brown. This was accompanied, as were other entrées, by the vegetable of the day--fresh-tasting green beans--and wonderful arinicini, little croquettes of pan-fried risotto mixed with mozzarella. Literally "little oranges," these arinicini were more kumquat-sized here, light and chewy. We loved them.
A he-man-sized slice of baked lasagna ($14.50) was dense, and its hearty meat sauce's flavor was helped by the addition of that ever-present sweet pork sausage. The table's younger generation reported having enjoyed versions of gnocchi and linguine with meatballs more elsewhere (both pastas $7; side of meatballs $5.50), although they tasted fine to me.
Of the butter-creamy, homemade desserts we tried--including a too-mild tiramisu--we liked best a nocciola cake ($6.50), which layered hazelnut chiffon and hazelnut cream and came topped with sliced hazelnuts, of course. What were you expecting, cremini mushrooms and sweet pork sausage?
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