Grilled Cheese & Co.

$$$$ ($14 and under)

Editorial Review

Launching a franchise during challenging economic times might be risky, but the folks behind Grilled Cheese & Co. might be on to something. For one thing, among the most expensive items on their tightly edited menu is the Sweetest Thing, a gooey concoction of brie, mascarpone and raspberry preserves, studded with chocolate chips and grilled on challah bread, at $7.50.

If that sounds extreme, even for a menu that leans heavily toward comfort food, no worries. The Original ($5) is described by co-owner Vic Corbi as "the way your mom made it," and he's right. Orange American cheese between two slices of white bread grilled golden conjures powerful food memories, although you might notice that the bread here is slightly larger and chewier, and the cheese is definitely not the cheese food that comes in a brick. Likewise, a cup of creamy tomato basil soup ($4), with chunks of fresh tomato and shreds of sweet basil, is a pleasant update on a childhood classic.

Corbi and business partner Matt Lancelotta opened their Catonsville prototype in April and are already looking to open another in July; somewhere in Howard County is all they're willing to reveal. They have received more than 20 queries from potential franchisees, Corbi says.

The concept is no-frills: a menu written chalkboard-style on a chocolate-colored wall and a kitchen staff in brown company T-shirts, cranking out sandwiches on panini presses behind the counter.

Cheese and more cheese: The name says it all. There's the Fresco, with mozzarella, roasted red peppers and pesto on ciabatta, and the Veggie Delight, with havarti, roasted vegetables and olive spread on whole-grain bread (both $7).The crabby melt ($7.50) is Monterey Jack on a thick smear of blue crab dip, rich with cream cheese, and the Blue Ox ($7) is a hearty sandwich of marinated grilled steak with blue cheese and house-made horseradish.

Along with the list of sandwiches -- 10 in all, plus a monthly special -- there are three salads: a house version, with shredded cheddar and diced tomatoes ($4.50); a Caesar, with nice, tangy dressing ($5); and the Grilled Cheese Signature ($6), with roasted vegetables, crumbled blue cheese and bacon. There's cream of broccoli soup ($4) in addition to the aforementioned tomato, and the owners plan a monthly soup special starting in the fall. Sides include shoestring and sweet potato fries ($1.50), the latter dusted with black pepper for a subtle bite.

The bread is from Cardinal Bakery in Sterling, and most of the sandwiches are built on chewy ciabatta.

The simple grilled cheese sandwich, long a staple in the recipe omnibus of the American Mom, has recently become a phenomenon in the world of gourmands. The Grilled Cheese & Co. partnership seems to be riding the wave.

-- Martha Thomas (Good to Go, May 2010)