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Scene in the Distance

The latest downtown hot spot is hip, handsome -- and in Baltimore

By Tom Sietsema

Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page W19

*** Pazo
1425 Aliceanna St. (near South Caroline Street), Baltimore. 410-534-7296
Open: for dinner Tuesday through Saturday 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., Sunday and Monday 5 to 10 p.m. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations required on weekends. No smoking. Limited wheelchair access. Valet parking. Prices: tapas $3 to $8, pizzas $10 to $13. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $50 per person.

Outside the restaurant on a Saturday night, there hangs a velvet rope and a couple of big guys with earphones.

_____Tom Sietsema_____
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Inside, you begin to understand why those props at the door might be necessary. Flocks of people are eating and drinking on multiple levels, some on the ground floor in tented nooks, others at balcony tables that overlook the happy congestion below. The center of the sprawling room contains enough couches to stock a Pottery Barn; in the distance, an exhibition kitchen seems to stretch an entire block. Castle-worthy light fixtures drop from a peaked ceiling that goes on forever, while urns the size of tree trunks help fill the vastness.

Have we stumbled upon a convention of beautiful people? It sure looks that way. Are we in Penn Quarter in Northwest Washington? We are not. Try instead a renovated machine shop in Fells Point -- an hour away from the capital, in Baltimore. Pazo, the destination in question, is the latest collaboration between chef Cindy Wolf and her husband, restaurateur Tony Foreman, a couple whose impressive empire embraces the restaurants Charleston and Petit Louis Bistro, as well as Bin 604 Wine Sellers, all in Charm City.

Riding a trend that is destined to be with us for a while, Pazo ("grand house" in the Catalan dialect) emphasizes Mediterranean-style tapas meant to be shared. Do not start yawning. Three or four of these small plates per person mean a crowded table, a delectable feast -- and lots of contenders for seats. Even 5:45 on a Saturday night has the vibe of 11:59 on New Year's Eve.

Meals are culled from categories including "sea," "land" and the vegetable-driven "field" -- surf, turf and more turf -- and choosing isn't easy, since there are well over 50 selections. But a blizzard of options isn't your only challenge; the lack of light in this restaurant makes simply reading the possibilities difficult. Despite many strategically placed votives, Pazo is dim as a cave in most places. When a plate of red beets shows up, they practically disappear into the dark wood table. And when a server catches me squinting at the menu, she lends me her penlight. "We can't see in here, either," she says, nodding in sympathy. Like music, lighting can be used for better or worse in a restaurant, and Pazo takes soft illumination to an extreme.

That's a pity, because you'll want to see what you're eating -- peasant food in all its glory, with a few modern touches thrown in. The food is attractive in its rustic straight-forwardness, the flavors mostly pure and simple. Fritto misto is a collection of lightly fried calamari and shrimp, served piping hot but cooled down after a dip in the accompanying aioli. A thin slice of swordfish gets a saline lift from olives, a breezy lilt from fresh basil and some sweet, juicy punctuation from orange. Octopus is chopped and tossed with potatoes and paprika in a salad of distinction, and lightly grilled sushi-grade tuna wraps around a creamy filling of raisins, pine nuts and more for a fish roll to remember.

There are plenty of delicious discoveries on "land," too. Empanadas stuffed with ground pork and veal vanish within moments of landing on the table, as do braised veal cheeks, scattered with crisp pumpkin seeds and resting on pumpkin puree zipped up with sherry and garlic. Pork ribs with garlic sauce reads like a hit, but the dish proves underwhelming: There's not much meat on the bones, and the sauce is too subtle. But my pals and I are all smiles again when a plate of wide noodles materializes, the slippery pasta bolstered by a hearty meat sauce and lashings of pecorino cheese.

Launched in December, Pazo seems eager to please not just some people but everyone: young and old, rich and not, meat-and-potatoes types and their opposites. Vegetarians will be pleased to see more than a dozen dishes celebrating ingredients from the "field," though even carnivores may find themselves ordering the glossy, garlicky sauteed spinach or the powerfully smoky eggplant dip. And one of the best dishes on the whole menu is goat cheese pasta with fresh-tasting arugula pesto. A light and fluffy pancake made from chickpeas serves as a base for a sweet, winey onion marmalade; at least one person should order this savory snack to share. Bread is not an afterthought here but a category all its own. Of the thin-crusted pizzas, I'm partial to the round topped with white cheese, pine nuts, capers and cauliflower; and any meal is improved by a thick wedge of fougasse, a whole-wheat bread sprinkled with sea salt and shot through with rosemary.

The kitchen, under the watch of 32-year-old Peter Livolsi, serves several thousand tapas on its busiest nights, so you might encounter a few slips now and then. That beet salad, for instance, is too cold and improperly tossed, so that its elements -- crisp pancetta, red onion -- remain strangers in the bowl. Rockfish carpaccio, one of the menu's few modern conceits, tastes strongly of yesterday's catch. And grilled prawns perch on chopped arugula that might crunch with grit. Pazo isn't flawless, but eating here is always an adventure.

Pazo has a sommelier to answer any wine questions, but the wine list is so thoughtfully crafted that even a novice can select a bottle with confidence. Grape variety, producer, region, vintage -- all the important details are in place to help you make an informed pick. The 100 or so choices include wines from Sardinia, Campania, Jumilla, Costa Brava -- lesser-known regions that yield plenty of appealing wines -- and they come in a range of prices, starting at an exceptionally friendly $15. "Opulent, peachy, finishes with lemon balm" reads the description of a $29 white wine from Campania that lives up to that promise. "Perfectly structured, perfectly pleasant pizza wine," the description of a $16 primitivo from Brindisi, dares not to over-gush. The wines are poured into stylish tumblers rather than stemmed glasses, yet another detail in keeping with this casual, considerate venue.

Compelling recipes, a handsome space, service with a smile -- a meal at this "grand house" adds up to a transporting evening. A class act in spite of its youth, Pazo wears its name well.

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A self-described wine amateur sent a question to my online chat -- a good question, but one I didn't get a chance to answer online: "What am I supposed to do with a cork when the waiter hands it to me?" Some people like to sniff it; others check to feel if it's moist, indicating that the wine has been properly stored on its side. I tend to put the cork near my wine glass and forget about it. Smelling and sampling the actual wine gives you a much better idea of its quality and condition.

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