Maria's

9065 Frederick Rd.

Ellicott City

461-8787

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.

Prices: Most dinner entrees $5.50 to $9.50.

Credit Cards: MasterCard, Visa, Discover.

Sometimes I get it right the first time, ferreting out the best meal on a restaurant's menu on my first visit. This was the case recently with Maria's, a simply decorated, reasonably priced family restaurant with accommodating service and a bewildering panoply of Italian, American, Greek and Middle Eastern dishes on the menu.

It is obvious that this menu was created to please as many palates as possible, so I bypassed popular taste to focus on the small "Mediterranean Specialties" section -- a strategy that paid off handsomely with a selection of well-prepared Middle Eastern dishes that can be difficult to find in this area.

Falafel, the deep-fried chickpea and crushed wheat balls prized by vegetarians for their taste and high-protein content, was good here, the heaviness of the crust lightened by plenty of fresh parsley in the moist interior. Even better was the eggplant dip called motabal, which was a mound of spiced, pureed eggplant flavored with tahini (sesame butter) and glistening with a final splash of olive oil. Hummus was also tahini-tinged, creamy and light.

It was a real bonus to find kibbeh, the two-layered meatball with a ground beef/cracked wheat mixture on the outside and a seasoned beef, onion and nut mixture inside. Almost indistinguishable from the falafel at first glance, this version crunched nicely on the outside, revealing a firm meat filling that surprises with a touch of cinnamon.

Taste some of each dish by ordering the sampler platter, which comes with all these dishes, as well as a small cup of cucumber and tomato salad in yogurt and tahini, and a basket of hot pita bread.

A crisp salad is the best complement to this platter. The menu lists both Greek and Italian, but note that the Italian is the same lettuce/tomato combo as the house salad that comes with some entrees. While its components (iceberg lettuce, tomato, green pepper, onion) are not unusual, don't underestimate the importance of getting real kalamata olives, a good quality Feta cheese and the option of anchovies on your Greek salad.

In fact, the most humble of salads would be transformed by the phenomenal house dressing, a vinaigrette with fresh garlic, freshly grated Parmesan cheese and a brilliantly conceived combination of herbs and spices that includes explosive bits of rosemary. The owners should consider bottling this dressing for sale.

After Maria's great Middle Eastern fare, the rest of the menu is anticlimactic. Of Greek specialties, the spanakopita (spinach and cheese pie) was a standout, full of gooey nuggets of partially melted feta but marred by too-limp filo pastry crust.

Pastitsio, a layered casserole of ground beef, macaroni and bechamel sauce, was suffocated under a thick blanket of the restaurant's all-purpose Greek-Italian-Creole tomato sauce, which still didn't manage to disguise overcooked pasta. This dish is sure to be better on another day, so do request that the sauce be served separately if you want it at all.

Thankfully, the sauce came on the side when I ordered moussaka, a baked eggplant, potato and ground beef casserole that should have had the tomatoes in its meat filling. The moussaka's vegetables and meat were tasty enough, but its bechamel sauce, which should have been a smooth custard, had a suspicious viscosity not born of egg yolks.

Stuffed grape leaves were a good quality canned variety with a rice-only filling, nicely dressed with olives and feta.

The flavors of the chicken Parmesan, ravioli and lasagna primavera on my Italian sampler platter were also masked under prodigious amounts of the industrial red sauce, which had the flat, sweet taste of a school lunch preparation. On the Italian menu, you'll do better to stay away from red entirely and bank on brown.

This means choosing the marsala sauce that comes on chicken or veal saltimbocca (meat baked with ham, spinach and mushrooms and topped with provolone cheese) or the straight chicken or veal marsala. The sauce, though overly cornstarched, is pleasantly alcoholic and well flavored. Veal saltimbocca was served in a huge portion, a rich and satisfying combination that still managed not to be heavy.

Pizza is the best choice if you must have Italian food, though. The crust is thick and unusually light. And good quality cheese and toppings are generously applied, although the sauce could use much more garlic.

Subs and seafood platters are unremarkable.

For dessert, there is a good homemade Greek-style rice pudding, but beware of the soggy baklava. Carrot cake is the best of the other desserts.