Little Things Make Big Differences At Italian Bistro
This location is closed
Mezzanotte Bistro did such a great job with a couple of appetizers—one showing off firm technique, the other betraying culinary imagination—that I thought I’d stumbled into an Italian, foodie Brigadoon. Here, at the tip of I-795, enfolded in the mists of northwestern Baltimore County, was that little paradise of a restaurant that locals keep secret from outsiders. In fact, we stupidly drove right by Mezzanotte at first, but there it was when we motored back, tucked into a quiet suburban shopping strip.
The interior also does a nice job of concealing whatever serious intentions the kitchen might harbor. More ambitiously made-up than most strip-mall Italian joints and lit at restful, flattering levels, Mezzanotte works a dorky prom-night fanciness—although there is such a thing as one too many faux surfaces.
One taste of Mezzanotte’s grilled calamari ($8) took us nonstop to Palermo. Thin slices from the mantle tossed with olive oil, garlic, and fresh basil and grilled just to the point where the translucent becomes opaque, this squid tasted sea-fresh and tender. There was something confident about how simply and adroitly it was prepared that seized our attention, whetted our palates. Equally promising was an appetizer of Italian ham stuffed with goat cheese ($7). The ham’s full flavor had been teased out by either flash-grilling or baking, and it had been wrapped tightly around well-selected creamy and strong fresh cheese. Crisscrossed with fresh grilled asparagus and a sturdy, but not aggressive, balsamic vinaigrette, this was another heavenly appetizer.
And then a course of house salads, which accompany virtually every entrée, and with them a soft landing back on planet Earth. It’s not that Mezzanotte’s salads weren’t composed of fresh and decent greens, but what separates the truly enterprising and interesting restaurant from the ones that play it safe can be something small. And at Mezzanotte, it is serving the house salad with your choice of dressing—pepper Parmesan or balsamic vinaigrette—always and automatically in a little plastic cup “on the side.” It was a little thing, but it took the excitement right out of the meal. When a restaurant has something strong and urgent to say about its food it dresses your salad in the kitchen. You can choose not to like it or even want it, but there it is. It’s the difference between eating and dining.
After that Mezzanotte never felt as special—or compelling enough for the drive—but came across as a sturdily performing and very reasonably priced family restaurant, one you’d grow to appreciate and rely upon if you lived in Reisterstown, Westminster, or Owings Mills. The menu ranges from homey fare such as spaghetti with meatballs or sausage ($12) and chicken or veal parmigiana ($15) to bistro cuisine such as seafood risotto ($18) and grilled tuna topped with olives and capers ($18).
We tried the veal saltimbocca ($17), which offered a generous layering of tender veal cutlets and a balanced white wine sauce but little in the way of passion and distinction. The presence of promised ingredients such as prosciutto, sage, and cheese were negligible, and the dish became monotonous, the same experience every bite. Mezzanotte’s handling of pasta with frutti di mare ($14) was likewise dullsville—firm pasta in good white wine sauce with mussels and clams piled on top. What was missing, even at these prices, was something to grab and hold your interest—tossing the pasta in the mollusks’ natural juices would have helped, as would a toss of garlic, basil, or parsley.
The letdown of ravioli stuffed with mushrooms in sage sauce ($14) had less to do with conception than execution. The large and pretty pillows were just too thick and doughy, resulting in a suffocating balance of pasta to filling—the mushroom-sage filling was tasty but elusive. And with a side dish of rapini and sausage ($6), the sausage was sliced too thin to make its flavor understood.
Tiramisu ($5.95) at Mezzanotte is feather-light with pronounced and welcome coffee flavor. At meal’s end, I was still a little bit intrigued by my midsummer night’s meal at Mezzanotte. But ultimately, my gut—and my tongue—tells me that they’re playing things too safe.