N is for New School
Joy America Café · Spike and Charlie's · Sotta Sopra · La Tavola · Opa! · Viccino Bistro · Café Pangea
There's just no kid in school newer than the Joy America Café (800 Key Highway,  244-6500), which does its imaginative best with food to equal the unbridled and unconventional artworks displayed in the American Visionary Art Museum, where the restaurant is housed. Food here is not merely cooked; it's "achiote seared," "Thai grilled," or "fire roasted." It's rubbed with blue-corn-tortilla dust or jasmine adobo. It's certainly like nothing you've ever had before. It's also generally excellent, and worth a splurge.
Occupying a spot nearby on the cutting edge are the playful Gjerde brothers, who lend their names to Spike and Charlie's ( 1225 Cathedral St.,  752-8144). Try their braised-duck pizza with shiitake mushrooms and acorn squash. One night we visited, the breadsticks were skinny and three feet long. They hung over the edge of the table. The menu tilts toward Italy, but gives a nod in other directions as well. Nothing looks quite as it's described, but you can't quibble with the taste. Spike and Charlie's is as serious about the wine as it is playful about the food. You can guzzle your way through a series of two-ounce "samples" or go for a big glass. And the desserts are works of art--you want to snap a photo before desecrating them with a spoon.
The closest we've ever seen Sotta Sopra (405 N. Charles St.,  625-0534) get to "old school" was when they played "I Love the Nightlife" and fired up the spinning disco ball one night as we dined. Otherwise, it's strictly nouvelle at this popular downtown Italian, from the cool lines and elegant archwork of the interior design to the de rigeur skinny breadsticks (in a just-so rustic bucket) they bring to your table. But while nothing's cheap here among the beautiful people, much of it is very, very good, especially the creative homemade pasta dishes and lush desserts.
La Tavola (248 Albemarle St.,  685-1859) stands out in Little Italy, and not just because of the garish sign outside and the, um, eye-catching purple and yellow décor. Not for nothing is it a two-time defending champion as City Paper's Best Italian Restaurant--the pastas are fresh, the toppings and sauces innovative (we're especially fond of the calamari alla griglia, black linguine with perfectly grilled squid), the wine list bountiful, and the prices reasonable by the neighborhood's standards ($12 to $16 for most entrées). Word of warning: If you go on a weekend night, be prepared to linger over your bread basket and drinks--the place gets crowded, and the service can get slow.
There's Greek food, and then there's authentic, way-they-really-make-it-in-Greece Greek food. Opa! (1911 Aliceanna St.,  522-4466) definitely earns its inclusion in the second category. This is no corner gyro-and-pizza joint. Dinner in Opa!'s airy, attractive dining room is like a quick trip to the Aegean, only without ever leaving Fells Point. Fare here is lighter than traditional Greek menu heavyweights, with excellent fresh fish and even some vegetarian dishes cooked to order in the open kitchen while you watch. We wouldn't miss the taramasalata appetizer if we were you; other must-try dishes are the whole grilled fish and the baby rack of lamb.
On its menu cover Viccino Bistro (1317 N. Charles St.,  347-0349) promises "creative Italian cuisine," and the items listed within--jumbo shrimp stuffed with goat cheese and seafood and fresh herbs in mascarpone risotto, to name a couple--don't disappoint. The Bistro's cooking is more innovative and a mite fancier than at most of Baltimore's traditional Italian haunts, but for once we'll take the frills. Presentation and flavor get high marks, and the atmosphere is pleasingly simple, forcing eaters to focus on the food.
Café Pangea (4007 Falls Road,  662-0500) might be a few blocks north of Hampden's burgeoning Avenue, but this airy, sophisticated café is very much of the new Hampden. Though it's one of the city's first cybercafés, people come here for the menu, not the mouse clicks. The fresh, inventive sandwiches are a real draw, stuffed as they are with such fascinating ingredients as oven-dried tomatoes, Kalamata olives, grilled peppers, goat cheese, and mint leaves. Many are served on warm, crumbly foccaccia. And on clement days, an outdoor patio lets you picnic under the Hampden skies. What could be nicer?
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201