Located on a lonely street behind the Canton Safeway, Tiburzi’s Italian Grill and Café revels in the corner-bar mystique that pervades the Baltimore dining scene. What separates the winners (Henninger’s, Peter’s Inn) from the also-rans is a balancing act: holding onto the bar’s core values of neighborliness while delighting diners with imaginative cuisine.
Tiburzi’s tightrope walk is nervier, if only because its Italian comfort-food menu puts out expectations for a cozier, more romantic, ambiance. Tiburzi's could be cuter, or grungier. For now, it’s just a bit homely and utilitarian. The grouping of first-floor tables sits too close to the entrance (a problem in winter). The upstairs dining room feels like it has too many tables stuffed into it, and the tables themselves are unadorned with either cloths or flowers, giving off the look of a furniture showroom. Compensating for the drab ambiance, though, is the staff’s inherent niceness.
Tiburzi’s works best when you’re in the neighborhood and feel like Italian fare. The simple menu emphasizes pasta dishes (double the amount of other entrées) with enough variety and flair to satisfy momentary urges and whims. Tiburzi’s clearly prefers seafood—scallops, shrimp, salmon, lobster, ahi tuna—over meat for tossing into pastas. Sausage is scarcely seen, only as a ($3.95) add-in with the menu’s most basic ($8.95) offering of penne, capellini, linguine, or fettuccine. The ones we tried weren’t perfect, but they all had encouraging qualities.
The fettuccine Alfredo ($11.95/$6.95 for additional shrimp) pleased with its well-coated al dente noodles and its mouth-coating creaminess. It is very salty; even our table’s salt freaks were put off by the shrimp, which had been rolled (possibly for days) before frying in salt and Old Bay and were all but inedible—which is too bad, because the shrimp underneath the coating were firm and sweet.
An Italian scallops pasta ($16.95) makes very good use of Tiburzi’s exceptionally robust marinara sauce, which exploits the dark and oily juices of roasted tomatoes with scarcely a hint of the sugariness that bothers the sauces of so many other Italian kitchens. Tossed with fresh chopped basil, garlic, and translucent onions, and of impressive size (most pasta dishes yield a secondary take-home meal), this was a thoroughly winning dish except for the scallops. The menu advertises pan-seared sea scallops but instead uses their tinier bay cousins. Bay scallops, of course, don’t lend themselves to careful pan-searing, and so these weren’t. Instead, they were heated and thrown into the pasta, adding neither good flavor nor visual appeal.
One of Tiburzi’s more ambitious creations is the wild mushroom pasta ($15.95), which places over linguine a medley of button, shiitake, and portobello mushrooms that have been sautéed in garlic, basil, Parmesan, and Marsala wine. The first taste is startling: Tiburzi’s Marsala sauce is intensely smoky and sharp, powerful as heck, and would perfectly flatter a medallion of veal or breast of chicken. It came very close to overwhelming even the woodiest mushroom flavors but managed to work, just barely, on a chilly winter night.
The best pasta dish tried was the chicken Tiburzi ($19.95), a kitchen-sink medley of sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, and basil blended thoroughly with garlic-lemon butter into a bowl of linguine. Very tender, pounded-out chicken breasts, coated with garlic, pepper, and salt, sit atop all of this. Pure excess works here; with enjoyment in every bite, the dish never grows monotonous. Having to go at the chicken breast separately, with knife and fork, is a small minus—incorporating pieces of chicken into the pasta is always a better way to go.
A few appetizers shone, especially the fried eggplant ($8.95), the best thing tried all night. Sliced thin, the eggplant is coated with coarse breadcrumbs and deep-fried to a nutty brown and crispy crunch. A tiny ball of herbed goat cheese accents its pretty pinwheel presentation, and Tiburzi’s homemade marinara sauce makes for happy dipping. Almost as nice is the lightly breaded mozzarella ($9.95), fried minutely and topped with more of the great marinara sauce and pecorino Romano. A far cry and vast improvement on those gooey cheese logs, this appetizer respected the delicate qualities of good, fresh mozzarella.
Tiburzi’s was slow when we visited, and this corner spot surely works better when more neighbors are gathered casually downstairs, and definitely in warmer weather when the front door can let in sunshine and breezes. There’s a sweet little terrace off the upstairs dining room, too, which is where I’ll want to sit when I return to give Tiburzi’s the second chance it deserves.