The Willows Restaurant and Tavern has been around awhile and has a pretty regular clientele. That became obvious when John Nucci, the proprietor for the last five years, made an appearance in the dining room when we were looking over the menu, and he spoke to most folks in the room by name.
Nucci just can't help talking to his patrons, sometimes telling stories of the diners at one table to those at another. His charming eccentricity brings Stanley Tucci from "The Big Night" to mind. Though that movie is about two brothers attempting to bring Italian cuisine to New Jersey, The Willows is more like "Southern Maryland meets Italy." Nucci tries to marry local favorites (duck, rockfish and oysters) with Italian cooking and flavors.
The menu is well balanced, with plenty of meat and poultry, seafood and pasta. "We have everything from bar burgers to pan-seared duck," Nucci says. Each Friday, the specials change, bringing forth five additional creative entrees. And it is here where Nucci perhaps does his best work.
Rockfish is Nucci's thing. "Rockfish rocks," he says. The weekly specials often include one of his wonderful rockfish creations. Rockfish Giovani ($16.95) is topped with Procciutto ham, scallions, tomatoes and Italian cheeses. Rockfish Riviera ($16.95) is broiled and served over toast points with a sauce of sauteed spinach, tomatoes and onions. Those are two examples of his uniquely creative flair. The poor guy even dreams of rockfish; he says the pecan-crusted rockfish special ($16.95) featured late this fall came to him in his sleep.
Other dishes, such as Chicken Batista ($13.95)--chicken breasts rubbed with pesto, charbroiled, sliced and garnished with sundried tomatoes, chives and Parmesan cheese and glazed with a light lemon butter cream--display the kitchen's ability to add an element of originality and style to an ordinary dish. In addition, there are three cuts of prime rib ($12 to $18) on the regular menu.
John Nucci lives and breathes to feed people. If a regular wants ham steaks on the menu, ham steaks show up. Nucci keeps Cent Cinquantenaire Grand Marnier (150 years old) in the house for a regular customer and Bombay Sapphire Gin for the one who likes Sapphire martinis. And, occasionally, things like cioppino--a San Francisco seafood dish of Italian origin with tomatoes, onions and green peppers--turn up as a special on the menu because a frequent customer makes a special request.
The restaurant occupies one big room. There's a bar in the back with glasses hung from overhead racks. Willows has a country cottage feel to it, with fresh flowers on the tables and unbleached muslin curtains on the windows. In this relaxed and casual atmosphere you can have a very pleasant meal.
Most dinners come with a salad topped with fresh vegetables such as tomatoes, carrots, zucchini and yellow squash shredded down to the seed. Appetizers are varied. Brie and Berries ($8.95), deep-fried brie on a plate with sliced fresh fruit, appeals to the lighter appetite, while the Fried Jalapeno Ravioli ($5.95), Italian cheese-filled jalapeno pasta, fried golden brown and served with a dipping sauce, seems more like what you'd want with a beer at the bar. The Louisiana BBQ Shrimp ($17.95), jumbo Mexican white shrimp sauteed in a traditional spicy barbecue beer sauce, was the hit of the house with us--fine Cajun cooking right here in Southern Maryland.
If what you're looking for is a comfortable dining spot that's imaginative yet traditional, The Willows is worth a try.
* Address: On Route 5, just south of Leonardtown. 301-475-6553. Easy wheelchair access.
* Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Saturday; 2 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
* Prices: Entrees, $9.95-$19.95; children's menu, $4.95-$5.95. Most major credit cards accepted.
* Best-kept secret: It's an old building; part of it dates to 1890 when it was located across the street, about 100 yards from its present location. When the swamp encroached, the restaurant was moved across what is now Route 5 to a piece of land with wonderful willow trees.
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CAPTION: Chef Jeff Radcliffe-Nelson caps off an order of fried oysters.
CAPTION: Sarah Watts serves lunchtime bowls of soup to Zolton and Lorraine Adam, of Great Mills, who are regulars at The Willows Restaurant and Tavern.
CAPTION: Louisiana BBQ Shrimp, jumbo Mexican shrimp sauteed in a spicy barbecue beer sauce, offers a taste of Cajun.