Eastern Shore Allure
An Italian restaurant offers rewards for a drive across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, Sep. 3, 2006
The first of several sensual surprises at Scossa in Easton: a burnt-orange awning out front that provides welcome shade for diners who have gathered on the inviting patio. The restaurant's visual allure only gets better when you walk through the doors. A "Sex and the City" -style hostess looks as if she breezed in from Manhattan to take care of you, and the dining room could easily pass for something you'd find in the Big Apple, too, all subtle lighting, warm colors and fine textures (the banquettes are swathed in faux ostrich skin and practically swallow you in comfort). A stroll down a hallway leads to an equally appealing lounge set with tables for the inevitable -- and inevitably swell-looking -- crowds on the weekend. The intimate space, which includes a small bar, is dressed with relaxation in mind. A game of chess on the couch, anyone?
"We wanted something we wouldn't grow tired of," explains co-owner and general manager Grant Friedman, who launched Scossa with chef Giancarlo Tondin last November. "Something classic that we could live with for 20 years." Friedman, who went to high school in Easton, came to the project from hotels, specifically the Ritz-Carlton in New York, where he was an executive in charge of room operations. Tondin has worked for the Cipriani restaurant family -- think Harry's Bar in Venice and Downtown Cipriani and the Rainbow Room in New York -- since 1983. Their combined experience suggests that all your senses will be taken into consideration.
Sure enough, the fresh breadsticks are a treat. Slender and crisp, they're house-made and taste so. Seldom do flour, water, yeast, olive oil and salt reveal so much savor, and the accompanying olive-tinted butter adds a nice kick to the snack. (The chef hails from Northern Italy, where dairy products reign supreme.)
It's tempting to think, as you scan the menu, that Scossa is well-trod territory, that there isn't anything here that you haven't seen on 100 other Italian lists. Tomato and mozzarella salad? Been there, done that -- a lot. Fried calamari? Please, even Olive Garden serves the stuff. And risotto has become as commonplace as flag pins on the streets of Washington.
What makes me warm up to a lot of the food here is the quality of the ingredients and the way the kitchen handles them: with respect. Consider the tomato salad. The tomatoes themselves are fine, not great, but the clouds of cheese -- genuine mozzarella di bufala -- are terrific, and so is the basil-fragrant olive oil that streaks the plate. If all you know of mozzarella is the bland puck served on too many restaurant tables, this soft, slightly sweet cheese will be a revelation. Scossa's fried calamari is better than a lot of the competition's, too. Tondin soaks the seafood in milk and dredges it in a mixture of flour, semolina (for color) and bread crumbs (for more crunch). The result is a pale golden heap of tender-crunchy pleasure. Another substantial first course is yolk-yellow soft polenta topped with baccala -- milk-cooked cod mashed with garlic and parsley -- each component worthy of praise on its own but best enjoyed together.
Not every appetizer transports me across the ocean. A salad of steamed beets and asparagus with goat cheese reveals vegetables that cry out for longer cooking; roasting or grilling them might bring out more flavor. And a soup -- fish bobbing in a thin stock that hints vaguely of saffron and curry -- tastes out of place. The outsize gnocchi, veined with black truffles and draped in tomato sauce, are less than special.
On the other hand, risotto rewards its recipient with stock-swollen grains of rice enriched with Parmesan and butter. Throw in some sweet clams and tomatoes, and you've got a soothing second course that will please those who like their risotto on the soupy, rather than firm, side.
Will it be fish or meat for your entree? Either path yields winners. A slab of local rockfish is topped with a forest of garlicky broccoli rabe, two fine ingredients sharing some white space, the fresh sweetness of one playing off the slight bitterness of the other. Equally good is thinly pounded veal, its mild flavor ratcheted up with a splash of marsala, as well as demi-glace. Colorful little vegetables dress up the center-piece. But roast chicken cloaked in a light blanket of diced vegetables and wine, while tender, is a bit of a bore.
The sleeper among the main dishes is liver and onions, and before you skip my plug for the organ meat, keep in mind that the naysayers at my table helped put a substantial dent in the plate as it was passed around. Using fresh calf's liver, Tondin slices the meat into nearly paper-thin sheets, which he sautes in a hot pan with extra-virgin olive oil, just so the meat gets crispy. He then adds onion, parsley, white wine and butter. On the plate, the stack looks like a gyro without its pita bread. On the palate, it tastes pretty wonderful.
Several desserts are made on-site, and those are the endings you want to investigate. Scossa's elegant tiramisu honors that classic marriage of spongecake, mascarpone and chocolate with its restrained sweetness and a blast of espresso. Intensely flavored blueberries and raspberries brighten a custard-filled pastry shell. The gelati, which is purchased by the restaurant, is merely satisfying. Crepes flambeed with Cointreau are better.
In Italian, Scossa is akin to "surprise," which sums up the way I felt after every meal at this destination restaurant: unexpectedly pleased to find such agreeable food in such a seductive setting.