A stylish Annapolis newcomer promises a romantic evening out. But will savvy diners still love Osteria 177 tomorrow?
By Mary K. Zajac
There are many ways to seduce. Music. Intimate conversation. A touch. For me, a night out in a restaurant also has seductive power, and I, for one, was seduced by Osteria 177. Or, more specifically, by host Arturo Ottaviano.
Ottaviano is the handsome face of Osteria 177, the new Italian-Mediterranean restaurant on Annapolis?s Main Street that has replaced Joy Luck Emperor. (Ottaviano shares ownership with three other partners: business investors Michael Loprete and Jamie Kujawski and fellow Verona native, Maurizio Cotti, who is also the restaurant?s chef.) From his natty suit to his suave manner, hosting (the root of the word osteria) is Ottaviano?s business. ?Arturo likes to take care of people,? Loprete notes, ?and he’s very good at it.?
You’ll get no argument here.
From changing our seats from a booth to a table (at our request) to bringing us a sample of oyster stew when one of us inquired about it to the tall flutes of (gratis to us) limoncello that ended our meal, my friends and I were coddled, pampered, and (yes, I?ll use that word again), seduced. (Okay, so maybe he was on to us, but we weren’t the only diners with dreamy smiles on our faces.)
In between the seduction, we sampled some fine food, though some dishes were finer than others. Our best choices focused on seafood or pasta (or in one case, both). A tuna carpaccio appetizer, drizzled with balsamic vinegar and garnished with caramelized onions, gleamed rosy pink and nearly melted in my mouth. Grilled calamari was the right balance of firmness and silkiness. Both appetizers were served on a bed of greens. A potato-encrusted rockfish entree tasted incredibly fresh, though a side of mashed potatoes seemed redundant. Better was the spaghetti Osteria 177, a visually beautiful dish where mussels, shrimp, scallops, and calamari were bound together by a garlic white wine sauce where cherry tomatoes (for color) peaked out from among the black strands of squid ink pasta. The dish wasn?t overly spicy, but the flavors were clear and the seafood, very fresh. (The restaurant has fish shipped in on a daily basis, says Ottaviano, and Chef Cotti insists on wild over farm-raised.)
Also intriguing, if incredibly rich, was the pear pasta special ordered by a friend. The ravioli-like pasta was stuffed with pear, ricotta, and gorgonzola and tossed in cream sauce with porcini mushrooms, resulting in a myriad complement of flavors?sweet, savory, a tinge of salt?all bound together in a creamy richness. My friend loved it, and so have other diners apparently, because, according to Loprete and Ottaviano, it will now be a regular part of the menu.
We were less impressed with the veal medallions?not a thing wrong with them, but not particularly scintillating or memorable. Also disappointing were the eggplant timbale appetizer (bland) and the shrimp Malaga, a shrimp encased, almost imprisoned, in pasta phyllo (a thin pasta cut into fine strands) that was just plain odd.
I must note here that Osteria 177 had been opened a mere three weeks before our visit, an oversight on our part, as we would usually give a restaurant more time to settle in before reviewing it, and the menu is still evolving. I have to hope they keep the Caesar salad. Although, when it arrived at the table, it elicited the comments, ?It looks like it came out of a bag!? and ?Does it have any dressing on it?? But the salad was actually an exercise in balance and finesse. No, the greens did not come out of a bag. They were simply baby romaine and radicchio that had been chopped fine, and the homemade dressing (with fresh anchovies and not anchovy paste, Ottaviano explained) was applied with a light touch. And of course, the croutons were homemade.
The desserts are homemade too, and our favorite was the chocolate ginger timbale, a small, warm round of flourless chocolate cake that oozed a soft chocolate center. Yes, a lot of restaurants offer a variation on this kind of dessert, but when done well, one doesn?t mind the repetition. At the same time, there was nothing particularly memorable about the tiramisu or the coconut pudding, but perhaps the same adage applies. If you like tiramisu or coconut pudding, you won?t object to Osteria 177?s. One diner described our final dessert, the spiced panna cotta, as tasting like milk punch, something that one of us liked, and another didn?t.
?Every place reflects a person’s personality,? Ottaviano told me over the phone a few days after our visit. Osteria is ?contemporary and classic,? he continued, ?and we want to characterize that, the fusion between the two, in the food and in the decor.? Ultimately, the fusion is most visible in the restaurant?s interior. Ottaviano retained the old tenant?s classic mahogany wood paneling and crystal chandeliers (?We wanted to make it sparkling and funky,? he explains), and to them added contemporary art, modern table garnishes, like square leather place mats and white leather chairs, which look terrifically uncomfortable but ended up being just fine. The white chairs do jar the eye, though, sort of like wearing white shoes with black stockings. You keep asking yourself if this is impossibly chic or simply a fashion faux pas.
I?ll admit that, in the end, I was more impressed with the experience of Osteria 177 than with every dish I sampled. Yet, I believe the restaurant is off to a promising start. Pick carefully through the menu, treat yourself to a decent and decently priced bottle from its very nice wine list, and lay back and let yourself be pampered by fine service. As Ottaviano told me, ?This is just the beginning. We can ?do much, much more.?
I’m waiting, Arturo?
Mary K. Zajac is a food writer living in Baltimore.