Italy is a country where every wrinkle in topography brings a change in culinary preparations. Cooks separated by a single mountain or those at opposing ends of the same valley have distinctly different ways of preparing what, to outsiders, may seem like the same dish.
Few of these regional dishes are known to the American dining public. What we consider classic Italian preparations are really just well-known versions of local specialties: spaghetti with clams, spaghetti with meatballs, veal cutlet Milanese, steak Florentine. You wouldn't find spaghetti with clams in a home-style restaurant in the Piedmont region around Turin, and you won't find spaghetti with meatballs in a Venetian kitchen.
Arturo Ottaviano grew up in Verona (the city of Romeo and Juliet) in the Veneto region centered on Venice; Maurizio Cotti grew up in Brescia, just a few miles away along the autostrada that traverses Northern Italy, but his culinary heritage is that of the Lombardy region, whose capital is Milan. Together the two men want to introduce Italy's vastly differing culinary styles at their new Annapolis restaurant Osteria 177.
The name, which takes its numbers from the street address, isn't just a pretension. In Italy, osterias are the neighborhood gathering places, where cards and conversation are usually accompanied by glasses of local wines. Osteria 177 aspires to be such a place for Annapolis, smack in the middle of Chesapeake yacht heaven, in a building that for years housed a Chinese restaurant.
Ottaviano, the manager, and Cotti, the chef, have a long history of working in area restaurants, including Washington's Tiberio, Annapolis's Mona Lisa, and together at Trattoria Alberto in Glen Burnie, which has long had the reputation as Baltimore's best Italian restaurant, its Anne Arundel County location notwithstanding.
All of that experience comes together in Osteria 177, a space that is both traditional (chandeliers dripping with crystals) and contemporary (stark, angular white leather chairs). Deep mahogany paneling, interrupted by flashes of deep red, lines the side walls of the restaurant, which are outfitted with a series of booths. Across the front, broad windows overlook Main Street. A bar, flanked by two marble niches, anchors the back of the room and functions as a service bar for waiters.
Striking modern paintings decorate the walls; rustic pottery accents each of the booths. What you won't find here are the Murano glass pendant lights that are a staple of nearly every restaurant these days. You won't find them in many restaurants in Italy, either.
The noise level is high, but that doesn't mean you can't carry on a conversation with your table mates. And there is an unusual festivity in the air. Everyone here seems to be having fun.
The first hint of Ottaviano and Cotti's culinary strategy is evident with the arrival of the menu. The offerings may seem familiar, but just a little different.
Arugula salad, a staple on countless menus these days, includes bright red pomegranate seeds along with crumbled bits of Gorgonzola cheese and pine nuts -- a classic combination of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region north of Venice.
A soup, listed on the menu as sausage, fennel and beans, is a classic rendering of pasta e fagioli, a Venetian specialty (though you'll likely encounter a meatless version for Lent).
"We didn't want to have just Northern Italian cooking," Ottaviano said. "We are focusing on coastal cooking" -- which, considering Italy's peninsular shape, encompasses much of the country.
The wine list is well-chosen, featuring wines from Italy's most famous regions at reasonable prices. If you don't want to spring for the Ornellaia Super Tuscan at $220 a bottle, you might try the second wine from the same makers, Le Serre Nuove, at $90.
I can't quite pinpoint the origin of the bread, which is wonderfully chewy and yeasty tasting but not as dense as most Tuscan varieties, and it has a lot more taste than the pasty, white flour bread from Venice. The bread arrives warm, along with surprisingly airy breadsticks, accompanied by a bottle of garlic-infused olive oil (actually an American practice -- most Italians eat their bread plain, without butter or oil).
The menu leans heavily toward fish flown in daily from Europe or purchased fresh locally. During the winter, offerings have included cold-weather comfort foods such as osso buco (stewed veal shanks) from Lombardy and pheasant with Umbrian black truffles. And every plate is beautiful, garnished with flowers or fresh herbs that remind you that summer's bounty isn't that far away.
Appetizers include standard preparations for beef carpaccio (the modern version hails from Harry's Bar in Venice, though marinated raw beef has been around for centuries) and tuna carpaccio, grilled calamari, clams and mussels with garlic and a dish called shrimp Malaga. The dish uses sautéed baby spinach and Spanish Manchego cheese in the stuffing of a single jumbo shrimp that is first wrapped in proscuitto, then shredded phyllo dough, and flash-fried. This lovely golden morsel, resting in a pool of puréed roasted peppers, is nearly greaseless and tastes as spectacular as it sounds.
In addition to the bean soup, Osteria 177 also offers a superb fish soup and a daily special soup, which on one recent night was cream of asparagus. Eating it was like supping the lightest fluff of early spring asparagus, a true delight.
There is a daily special risotto and a small selection of pasta dishes. One of them incorporates linguine infused with black squid ink with shrimp, scallops and calamari in a light tomato white wine sauce that is very much like a dish you might find in Venice.
There is also gnocchi -- light puffs of potato dumplings -- with a basic marinara sauce or a rich Gorgonzola sauce. The most interesting pasta dish uses pears and Gorgonzola and ricotta cheeses in pasta beggar's purses that are napped with a light porcini cream sauce. It may sound radically modern, but such flavor matches are typical in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region.
Cotti shows an especially fine hand with fish, be it rockfish from the Chesapeake Bay, real Dover sole (it's only on the menu if they can get it fresh from Dover) or the Italian favorite, branzino (sea bass). There's nothing better than a simply grilled branzino. It arrives at the table whole. A waiter deftly fillets it tableside and drizzles on lemon-infused olive oil. Accompanied by creamy mashed potatoes and tender crisp haricot verts, the dish is a textbook example of Italian cuisine -- using the freshest and best ingredients, handling them gently and letting the quality of the food shine through.
Desserts include the rich and famous -- a duet of white and milk chocolate mousses, silken panna cotta, slightly grainy-textured ricotta cake, tiramisu, and a skewer of pineapple and melon served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
And, if you like espresso, Osteria 177's is the real Italian kind. Try it with a shot of grappa, Italian firewater.
Osteria 177 transports diners to coastal Italy with its ambience and food. Don't miss the trip.
--Nancy Lewis (March 29, 2007)