The windows of Ristorante Piccola Roma frame the daily parade that is Main Street Annapolis. But it doesn't take much to imagine you have a ringside view of the locals taking their nightly passeggiata (stroll) near the Eternal City's Spanish Steps.
Aging pressed-tin ceilings and a Federal-style fireplace are showcased by high-tech lighting; modern tubular chairs with upholstered seats and backs are pulled up to softly padded tables draped in crisp white linen; Italian love songs almost drown out the sound of the business deal being discussed at the next table.
Piccola Roma, Italian for "Little Rome," is cozy and cosmopolitan, bearing the personal stamp of Rome native Silvana Silvestrini, who with her husband, Arturo Silvestrini, has owned the restaurant for the past seven years.
Silvestrini had moved to Annapolis to retire from the restaurant business; she and her brother previously had owned and operated Primi Piatti in Tysons Corner. "Retirement wasn't that much fun," said Silvestrini, who presides over her domain from the restaurant's tiny bar, carefully monitoring servers and her guests' needs.
"They are my recipes, and I select the menu," she said, though chef Jose Ayala is charged with their execution.
(And the rich, throaty voice singing modern American songs may well be that of Silvestrini's teenage daughter; her mother can be persuaded to pop in her demo CD late at night.)
A perfect way to start the evening is with a Bellini cocktail, a blend of white peach juice and Italian sparkling wine that has become a standard Italian aperitif but is rarely anything like the original created at Harry's Bar in Venice. Silvestrini uses the Bellini base produced under the auspices of Harry's Bar, and the resulting drink is just a little lighter on the tongue than the original and wonderfully refreshing on a hot summer night.
Rosemary focaccia and slices from a fine-textured loaf fill the bread basket, accompanied by rosemary-infused olive oil. The wine list, heavy on Italian bottles, provides tasting notes for each wine. Many are from Friuli, an area northeast of Venice that produces some of the country's better, more affordable wines but until recently has been the Italians' own little secret. Several selections are available by the glass, and all bottles are moderately priced, with many in the $20-to-$35 range.
As do most Roman restaurants, Piccola Roma includes dishes from throughout Italy and gives them a bit more elegance than they might have in their native region. Fried calamari are crisp and light; bruschetta (toasted garlic bread) with white beans is hearty without being heavy. Fresh, peppery arugula is dressed with balsamic vinegar and accented with roasted plum tomatoes and a generous layer of shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Braised radicchio, a northern Italian favorite, is gently napped with a rich Gorgonzola sauce. A tangle of linguine is a base for a medley of seafood that could be straight from the Adriatic: shrimp, squid, clams and mussels. The flavors are bright and fresh.
At lunch there are several main-course salads and pasta entrees; meat and fish dishes predominate on the dinner menu. A luncheon steak salad entree combined several chunks of buttery fillet with a mixture of spring greens, a crumble of sweet Gorgonzola and wonderful vine-ripened plum tomatoes.
At dinner, a daily special of filet mignon was cooked past the requested medium rare but was still rich and flavorful. An order of veal scaloppine with lemon was more successful; the veal was sauteed quickly and not overcooked, and the lemon and caper sauce was piquant without being overpowering.
Desserts include mostly Italian standards, including imported ice cream treats that are the summer highlights. Chocolate tartufo -- a rich, creamy, custardlike center encased in chocolate ice cream dusted with cocoa powder -- is my favorite, but at many restaurants it's served rock hard. Piccola Roma does it just right: not quite semi-frozen, creamy and ready for a spoon.
But don't skip the espresso: It, too, is an Italian brand, prepared just as it would be in Rome, with a rich layer of brown foam. Don't even think about asking for a lemon peel; it's not the Roman way.
Ristorante Piccola Roma 200 Main St., Annapolis, 410-268-7898. Hours: lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; dinner, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5:30 to 9 p.m. Sundays. Appetizers at lunch, $7.50 to $12.50; entrees at lunch, $13.50 to $18. Appetizers at dinner, $7.50 to $13.50; dinner entrees, $15 to $29.
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