Crème de la Crème
Marconi's Offers a Sumptuous Old-Baltimore Dining Experience
This location is closed
As a Baltimore native, I am called upon sometimes by those newly arrived in town to explain some of the city's more perplexing practices and eccentricities. By way of explanation I always tell the same joke, which for me sums up Baltimore's unique zeitgeist. Q: How many Baltimoreans does it take to screw in a light bulb? A: All of them. One to put in the bulb, and the rest to talk about how much better the old bulb was.
It's true--this is a town that reveres, nay adores, its own past and prefers to dwell there whenever possible. The absolute most "Baltimore" restaurant experience is to be had at Marconi's, which opened its doors on Saratoga Street in 1920 and hasn't changed a lick since. The atmosphere is old-school elegance--white-tied waiters, crystal chandeliers, gilded mirrors and oil paintings on the walls--with a carved-in-stone menu to match. Serving Continental fare (is there another restaurant in Baltimore that even serves sweetbreads, much less three different kinds?) in grand Escoffier style, Marconi's remains faithful to the tastes of long-departed regulars like H.L. Mencken.
Classic cooking methods like meunière, Véronique, bordelaise, and bonne femme may be periodically "rediscovered" and even return briefly to vogue, but they have a permanent home at Marconi's. In recognition of its unswervingly antique approach, the restaurant recently won an "American Classics" award from the James Beard Foundation for being one of four "locally owned and operated regional restaurants that have withstood the test of time and are beloved in their communities" in the nation. With such a refined pedigree, my friend and I should have known better than to show up for dinner in relatively casual post-work attire. Everyone else--including one tiny and astonishingly well-behaved toddler wearing a necktie--was dressed to the nines.
We dined at Marconi's the same night a show opened at the Mechanic, and the crowd (mostly older people, some with really desperately old people in tow) was clearly a pre-theater one. Even so, most of the patrons greeted the waiters (not servers: these men--and at Marconi's it's men only--are clearly professionals) by name, and the waiters returned equally familiar greetings. It was a relaxed, enjoyable scene, with everyone drinking pre-dinner highballs (Dubonnet, anyone?) in the softly lit, high-ceilinged room.
We began with a true Baltimore classic, Marconi's Italian salad ($7). It's a good thing a serving feeds two because I don't know how one person could consume an entire portion of this chopped salad in its rich, creamy dressing. Finely cut iceberg lettuce, parsley, hard-boiled egg, celery, tomato, and anchovies--lots of anchovies--make a salty, compelling combination. I can see how not everyone would enjoy this pungent salad, but I certainly did. In addition, we enjoyed an appetizer of fried oysters ($9.50), four fat, flavorful, and perfectly breaded shellfish that would have amply pleased Mr. Mencken, also an oyster aficionado.
Marconi's signature dish is lobster cardinale ($24), and it's one of those dishes whose presentation brings oohs and aahs from neighboring parties. An entire split and broiled lobster acts as a chalice for its own meat, which comes bathed in a devastating sherried cream sauce. It's a total cholesterol fest, but worth it--it's rare to encounter such over-the-top sumptuousness for it's own sake in today's calorie-counting world. The perfect accompaniment to such an extravagant dish is, of course, nutmeg-laced creamed spinach ($4.50).
From the specials menu we also sampled veal Roman style ($18). Scallopine of (disappointingly tough) veal were topped with a robust and unusual sauce of tomatoes, olives, and peas; I liked it but ultimately wished I had gone for the kind of meal Marconi's does best--either one of the baroque cream-sauced classics or a simple steak. A side of buttery, paprika-dusted potatoes à la lyonnaise ($4) would have been the perfect companion to one of the restaurant's excellent New York strips, but it worked just as happily with the veal.
When dining at Marconi's the only appropriate finish is the French vanilla ice cream with lush homemade chocolate sauce ($6), so very, very good that I'm surprised they offer any other dessert. The final touch is to sit back, swirl an après-dinner snifter of amontillado ($5), and experience a moment of profound gratitude that some good things never change.
A final note: This will be the last Dish I am privileged to eat 'n' write. After a brief but abundantly enjoyable 10 months of covering the city's restaurant scene, I'm handing over the silver spoon to the highly able and entertaining Richard Gorelick. Bon appétit, Baltimore.
You gonna eat that? Dishthis@hotmail.com.