Baronessa seems such a grand name for a simple restaurant in a Gude Drive shopping strip in Rockville.
Murals -- fanciful scenes from Venice, Rome and other Italian locations -- dress up one side of the plain space, while mirrors fill the opposite wall. The tables with white tablecloths are surrounded by tall chairs with vinyl upholstery.
On a Friday night, most of the customers reinforce notions about the graying of suburbia, but they are a merry group, all smiling and having fun.
When the white pizza appetizer arrives, I know why. Cut into small squares, thick with cheese and heavy with garlic and herbs, this is the white pizza of my dreams. Nothing boutique here, just a thin crust that serves as a perfect base for the rich toppings.
Baronessa is the latest area restaurant venture for owner Antonia Cenere, who came to this country in 1961 to work as a maid. She'd been dispatched to persuade her older sister, who had come several years earlier, to return to their home in Puglia, at the bottom of Italy's heel. Both ended up working in the same household, for a man whose obsessions were Johnny Carson and golf. Back then, Cenere said, she thought the ultimate American job would be to work as Carson's personal maid.
But once she got started in the restaurant business, that vision changed. She started as a dishwasher, then worked her way up through a number of kitchens, including 1789 in Georgetown and Tony's, a little Italian restaurant in the 1700 block of L Street NW, perhaps best known as the business that held out when the block was being demolished for a large office building.
For almost two decades, she and her second husband owned the Tropicana restaurant in Takoma Park and, after they split, she owned Antonia's Trattoria in Wheaton. In late 2003, she shuttered Antonia's, intending to retire. But she got bored. "This is in my blood," she said.
Baronessa, named for a titled member of Cenere's family in the 14th century, opened in March 2004, in a smaller, more manageable space where she could continue to turn out the home-style, mostly Southern Italian food that she first learned to cook at Tony's.
Home-style is the key word. Baronessa turns out the fare of a modest trattoria in an Italian village. Focus on the simpler dishes -- the pizzas, pastas and uncomplicated main dishes -- and you can eat well and heartily at Baronessa.
Fried calamari is a dish that shows up on almost any kind of menu these days; Baronessa's version is light, never chewy. The rings from the body of the squid are thumb-size (which means the squid are small and more flavorful), and the tentacles are about the size of a quarter. The accompanying homemade marinara sauce has a rich tomato taste, although I'd like a bit more punch in the form of some red pepper.
Bruschetta features hearty bread with tomatoes and mozzarella and fruity olive oil, but the tomatoes were out-of-season tasteless. The minestrone is brimming with vegetables, as is the pasta fagioli, and both are great comfort food on a chilly fall evening. In contrast, the tortellini in brodo (small stuffed pasta in broth) is mostly tasteless.
A small salad, either mixed greens or a simple Caesar, comes with the entrees, and nicely complements the meal. The crunchy romaine of the Caesar is lightly dressed, but it's a nice foil for the heavier food to follow.
The star dish of our visits was the linguine with Bolognese sauce, a heaping bowl of perfectly cooked pasta and rich tomato-based meat sauce. It's hard to recall a better version of this classic dish, and it alone would make Baronessa worth a trip.
Vitello ala Francese, veal scaloppine dipped in egg and then quickly sauteed in butter and served with lemon sauce, is one of the most popular dishes on Cenere's menu. The veal is thinly pounded and fork-tender, and the accompanying thin spaghetti with olive oil and herbs was, again, pasta worth seeking out.
A dish of risotto with sea scallops was a huge serving. The rice was nicely cooked and the grains were separate rather than gummy, but it could have used a little lemon zest to brighten the tastes.
A special of sausage-stuffed chicken breast was home-cooking good, again with simply dressed pasta as an accompaniment, and nicely sauteed vegetables.
Tiramisu is a lofty cake and mascarpone affair, with not quite enough coffee taste. But the spumoni ice cream is the dessert to finish off a visit to 1970s-style Italian home cooking.
--Nancy Lewis (Nov. 22, 2007)