Rock 'n' Roll 'n' TV Dinners
And so dinner moved from the dining room to the living room, so no one had to miss a minute of Jack Armstrong: All-American Boy. In 1953, Swanson Foods put the meal in front of the screen with the first TV dinner. Billed as "the most delicious turkey dinner you never had to cook," it consisted of turkey with gravy, buttered peas, and whipped sweet potatoes--all for 98 cents and served up in a carton that looked like a TV set, including a tuning dial and "wood" console. When you were done, you threw the tray away.
Half a century later, we Americans are still planted in front of our beloved televisions, and TV dinners have mutated into formats from boil-in bags to bowls of rice. But TV dining needn't rely on the freezer. One of our most reliable sources for no-time-to-cook-my-show's-on gourmet fare is DiPasquale's (3700 Gough St., Highlandtown,  276-6787; 921 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville,  580-1400), an extraordinarily fine deli and grocery in the Italian tavola calda tradition. There are fine Italian cold-cut subs and gourmet ready-made pastas, and the big glass cases are stuffed with at least 10 different kinds of olives, gorgeous salads, roasted vegetables, tiny marinated calamari, and all sorts of imported cheeses. The kitchen turns out delicious sandwiches, along with more ambitious pastas and risottos to be eaten in the tiny café area or taken home.
Eddie's of Roland Park (5113 Roland Ave.,  323-3656; 6213 N. Charles St., Towson,  377-8040) is a grocery store, true, but its prepared-foods case offers outstanding quality and variety. The fruits of a well-timed visit to Eddie's can make eating on your couch seem like eating at a restaurant: mussels fra diavolo, pork loin with cranberry-walnut cornbread stuffing, spinach soufflé--and the value-added opportunity to pick up a pint of Ben & Jerry's for dessert.
Up Mount Washington way, glasZ Café (6080 Falls Road,  377-9060) provides nouveau-deli carry-out. Though the selection leans to the healthy side with salads and veggie dishes, glasZ also offers more substantial goodies: There's usually an intriguing quiche, and the café does wonders with chicken salad--chunks of breast meat with sun-dried tomatoes and bleu cheese, or with raisins in a curry dressing. Or there's teriyaki barbecued salmon or duck breast with cherries--add wild rice or lemon couscous, hit the dessert case, and it's all you could want from a TV dinner.
Another hallmark of '50s life was outmigration from cities to flourishing suburbs, spurred in large part by Veterans Administration loans that helped World War II vets buy their own homes. Each little slice of ranch-house paradise came with its own lawn--and so, once the postage-stamp plot of grass was mowed, a man took his place in front of the barbecue grill. Cooking out featured flesh, fire, and specialized gadgets, so it was the man's domain. You could do it with a beer in one hand.
For times when you don't have the hours to invest in slow-smoking your own meat, Andy Nelson's Southern Pit Barbecue (11007 York Road, Cockeysville,  527-1226) is the most complete barbecue purveyor in town. Andy's offers dry ribs or wet ones, pulled-pork barbecue, and Texas-style smoked brisket, which is obscure for these parts. On Thursdays only, there's a tangy mustard chicken BBQ sandwich, which merits the drive itself. The house barbecue sauce is a peppery-sweet Memphis-style preparation, all the meats are hickory smoked, and the red-skinned potato salad leads a fine set of sides.
North Carolina Barbecue Corral (6212 Reisterstown Road,  585-1077) offers decent ribs (though the super-sweet sauce could use more vinegar) and an amazing barbecue sandwich: finely minced pork, piled high on a bun and topped with coleslaw, N.C.-style. Sides are outstanding, particularly the ham-packed collards, more meat than vegetable. Plan on ordering your ribs to go; there's not much elbow room for digging into a major feast at this small spot.
From time to time we check in at the Corner Stable (9942 York Road, Cockeysville,  666-8722), just to make absolutely sure that nothing has changed. The atmosphere is classic rib-house: slightly shabby décor, scarred wood tables. And the ribs are good too, albeit boiled before they're barbecued--which jump-starts the cooking, but costs some savor to purist tastes. A tender rack is drenched in tangy sweet sauce; the waitress thoughtfully delivers a moist towelette packet along with the check.
Baltimore's regional specialty in barbecue is pit beef, and Chaps (5801 Pulaski Highway,  483-2379) is one of the standout places to sample the local approach. The carvers here heed requests for rare meat, sometimes waving dripping slices through the pickup window to ask, "This bloody enough?" And the meat goes on corn-dusted potato rolls, capable of standing up to the juice so that the sandwich disintegrates at a rate just a fraction slower than you eat it. The baked beans are piquant and well worth ponying up the extra buck; the coleslaw is also fine. So many cops eat at Chaps that this has to be the most secure pit-beef stand in the world.
Among the world-rocking technological breakthroughs of the '50s was the American Machine and Foundry Co.'s production of the bowling-pin-setting machine in 1952. It set the pin-setting profession the way of the blacksmith and brought bowling into the jet age, with a resulting surge in popularity. Bowling became a national pastime second only to baseball, its status cemented by NBC's groundbreaking Championship Bowling, which was quickly followed by Make That Spare and Bowling for Dollars. It helped, of course, that players could pursue the "sport" while smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and eating junk food--just try to find an alley without a snack bar.
Drinking, smoking, and eating . . . if you set aside the bowling part, where else can you pursue those three pastimes simultaneously? Smokes and hooch come with any bar; the key part is the food. Peter's Inn (504 S. Ann St.,  675-7313), in Fells Point, has some of the most ambitious bar eats in town. The eclectic menu says "restaurant," but the narrow one-room bar says, well, bar. Your average tavern, though, doesn't serve up butternut-squash-and-chipotle-chile soup with pumpkinseed oil, alongside the pickled eggs and pretzels. Owners Bud Tiffany (the bartender) and Karen Fuller Tiffany (the chef) keep Peter's the city's most reliably inventive small restaurant.
Located in a back corner of Butcher's Hill, Simon's Pub (2031 E. Fairmount Ave.,  522-4477) takes finding but is worth the hunt. The cozy rowhouse-turned-pub/restaurant is run by an actual guy named Simon--along with his affable dad, Bruce, who acts as host. There's a gorgeous copper-covered oak bar in the front, local art on the walls, and a handful of tables in the back for diners. Burgers and steaks are always a good bet, but the seasonal specials are pleasing and impressive, especially the pastas.
Maybe it's just that all the good bar eats are on the east side, but another of our favorite tavern-slash-restaurants is Henninger's Tavern (1812 Bank St.,  342-2172). We'd go for the oyster appetizer alone--plump saline beauties, breaded and fried and served over braised spinach with a Pernod-and-fennel cream sauce--but there's always something different on the menu, with seafood treated especially well. For hungry visitors who quail at the sight of the boisterous barroom, there's a snug (and relatively quiet) dining room off to one side, where even cell phones are banned--another point in Henninger's favor.
A swanky night out, midcentury style, was almost guaranteed to include an Italian restaurant: red plush banquettes, Chianti bottles for candleholders, plastic vines trailing plastic grapes, and a side of spaghetti with every selection. And, naturally, Frank or Dean or Tony crooning in the background. Even Lady and the Tramp (1955) shared their first starry-eyed smooch over a plate of pasta--now that's amore.
Though we like a good meat sauce as much as the next plus-size American, we're glad that Italian dining has moved past the mom-and-pop trattorias of the Eisenhower years. These days, when we go for Italian, we go across the Inner Harbor from Li'l It'ly to visit Federal Hill's Vespa (1117-21 S. Charles St.,  385-0355). The stylish décor and busy bistro atmosphere don't fit the old checkered-tablecloth mold, and neither does the food, which is as adventurous as Italian food gets in Baltimore. As evidence, we present the arugula salad, with tender grilled octopus and blood-orange vinaigrette, or the duck ragu.
For enlightened Italian food in a cozier setting, there's star-spangled Pazza Luna (1401 E. Clement St.,  727-1212) in Locust Point. The atmosphere is unserious--a maniacally thorough celestial motif in the décor, Italian language-lessons playing in the rest room--but not so the food. House-made pastas are excellent, as are the sauces, from a perky, garlicky pesto to the white clam sauce, fragrant with thyme. The balsamic-glazed pork chops and veal Marsala are admirable too. Be warned, though, that chef Kim Acton is a fiend for garlic--her battle cry, "In Garlic We Trust," is right on the menu--and uses it copiously, in almost everything.
If someone does insist on venturing into the spaghetti ghetto, there are a few restaurants in Little Italy where the food isn't pitched to tourist level and the prices aren't inflated to the stratosphere. The selections at La Tavola (248 Albemarle St.,  685-1859) aren't what they once were, now that the owners have bowed to the inevitable and changed the fare from fresh, sophisticated pan-Italian cuisine to standbys from the southern end of the boot. But there are still gems on the menu, glimmering among the clichés. Ignore the whatever Parmigiana and go for the mafalde alla fiorentina, a mélange of cream, spinach, raisins, and pine nuts over wide ribbon pasta, or the pesce del giorno (especially if it comes with black olives, tomatoes, and artichokes).
Another solid choice is La Scala (1012 Eastern Ave.,  783-9209), which offers dishes from both northern and southern Italy. The house specialty, a grilled Caesar salad, is better than it sounds: a half a head of romaine, put on the grill till just barely charred and then served with zesty dressing, cheese, and croutons. For the best value, avoid the pricey veal and go for the excellent antipasto and pastas. The puttanesca is outstanding, the penne with spinach with tomatoes and goat cheese is worth trying, and we wish we could have the porcini-flecked polenta alla griglia delivered to our home on a daily basis.
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Baltimore, MD 21201