Piedigrotta Bakery makes a casual, family-style dinner a special occasion
Published: July 13, 2011
1300 Bank St., Suite 140,  522-6900, piedigrottabakery.com
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“Everything is home-made,” Carminantonio Iannaccone says softly, as he sets down a straw basket of bread on the burgundy tablecloth spread with glasses and flatware. The pasta noodles, the sauces, this crusty bread with the spongy soft interior, the pastries, smeared thickly with chocolate or bursting with custard, the scent of which fills the bakery with a subtle sweetness—all home-made. Not for the first time during this evening meal at Piedigrotta Bakery it crosses your mind that you feel like you’re in someone’s home.
And in a sense you are. Since 2002, Piedigrotta’s proprietors, Iannaccone and his wife Bruna, have established their business as not only a go-to for impossibly large sandwiches and traditional Italian sweets and coffee, but for the sort of Old World hospitality that has disappeared in all but a few places in Baltimore. This summer, the Iannaccones are extending that hospitality (“to special people,” Carminantonio jokes throughout the meal to each table) to include regular prix fixe dinner service ($40/person for five courses) on Friday and Saturdays, and by reservation Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, the latter for a minimum of five people.
If it seems a bit odd to be stepping into the bakery that normally closes at 6 p.m. for Friday dinner, it is. The feeling dissipates, however, when you realize the efforts that have been made. Here among the trays of bread, the framed newspaper profiles, the family-room-style decorations such as the violin that hangs above a vintage White sewing machine hidden away in its wooden cabinet, several normally bare tables at Piedigrotta are dressed for the occasion with cloths and fresh flowers. When a couple sitting at a bare table decide to stay for dinner, they are moved accordingly to more formal seats.
A predinner phone call lays out the parameters of the meal: $40 for five courses, including antipasti, salad, pasta (probably lasagna or manicotti, Bruna explains), a simply prepared piece of fish or chicken, and dessert. Customers can make specific selections from these choices, but allowing yourself to be fed by the whim of the chef, as we did, yields a full sampler of dishes. Bringing beer or wine is also encouraged, though iced tea, lemonade, and juices are offered as part of the meal, along with a selection of post-dinner coffees.
Be warned that the pace here is leisurely. If Carminantonio brings the antipasti—a floral-ringed dinner plate holding sweetly fresh tomato bruschetta, several slices of prosciutto, and a small dressed salad—to the table, there will be conversation. Diners are then left to enjoy their course while the next one is being prepared, and while Carminantonio and another employee wait on the other customers who walk in for gelato or a to-go pizza or pastry before catching a movie in Little Italy. The pacing turns out to be a boon given the generous size of the portions.
Antipasti and salad are followed by bread that looks like the kind we used to buy in waxed paper bags from the local grocery store, but tastes a thousand times better. Then comes manicotti and lasagna all on one plate, separated by a tangle of red and yellow roasted tomatoes. The lasagna is surprisingly light and subtle, its homemade noodles bound together by a delicate meat sauce rather than drowned and weighed down in tomato and cheese. But it’s the manicotti that really shines. All creamy ricotta and bright tomatoes, it is the hands-down favorite dish of the evening, prompting one diner to exclaim, “You mean there’s more?” when Carminantonio brings dishes of butter- and lemon-napped tilapia, a little dull after the impressive pasta, and small portions of chicken cacciatore, nicely turned out in more tomatoes and peppers, but hard to find room for. The plate’s garnish, sautéed fresh spinach tossed with green beans and garlic, however, is worth saving room for.
And so, of course, is dessert. Carminantonio makes suggestions—a portion of tiramisu, a lobster claw, some pine-nut cookies—but half of our table wants gelato and the other half carves up a sfogliatelle (crispy pastry wound around a ricotta and dried-fruit filling) and a multilayered cake doused in coffee and rum. (Truth be told, some of us would have had dessert first if we weren’t working.) The other server takes coffee orders, and the meal ends as civilly as it began.
Dinner at Piedigrotta will not please those who want a quick bite, fancy food, and über-professional service, or who need to be in control of what they eat (though the kitchen is certainly accommodating). And granted, not everyone will want to eat five courses or spend $40 per person to eat in a bakery. Still, an evening meal at Piedigrotta might remind you of one cooked by relatives—Old World or New—who are glad you stopped in, and who genuinely want to feed you, instead of just selling you food. It’s worth making a reservation to feel what it’s like to be a “special person” in the Iannaccones’ domain.
Piedigrotta Bakery is open for breakfast and lunch Tuesday-Sunday. Call to reserve a table (for five or more) for dinner Tuesday-Thursday, or $40 prix fixe dinners Friday and Saturday.
> Email Mary K. Zajac