Taste Mediterranean Grille
New Towson Italian spot impresses with its fish
Published: December 22, 2010
Taste Mediterranean Grille is a new Italian restaurant with an old-world soul. Housed in the former Café Troia space (the current incarnation of Troia has moved across the street), this is no enoteca, no osteria where hipsters congregate (though perhaps they will be drawn there in the future). Rather, Taste is more formal, even courtly. It’s the kind of place where customers in tweeds and turtlenecks are greeted with “Good evening” and led to the pumpkin-colored dining room by servers in floor-grazing aprons, gentlemen who have worked the dining rooms of Little Italy, who refer to female diners as “the lady” (as in, “What will the lady be having?”), and would never dream of introducing themselves to you by name and telling you they’ll be your server for the evening.
But Taste isn’t Little Italy North either. Because chef/owner and recent immigrant Luigi Palumbo hails from Naples, the menu brims with seafood—grilled simply, whipped into mousses, and stuffed into homemade pastas. There is nary a meatball, layered pasta, or cannoli in sight.
Although Palumbo is no stranger to restaurant kitchens, Taste is his first venture as chef and owner, and he’s spot-on about many details, particularly wine. His list, as one would hope, boasts a strong Italian presence, including interesting and well-priced white varietals not see often enough in Italian restaurants, such as Arneis, Falanghina, and Greco di Tufo, and sturdy reds from Campania such as Lacrima Cristi del Vesuvio, Aglianico del Taburno, and Taurasi (though one wishes the by-the-glass menu was as dynamic and inclusive of producer information). Heavy-hitting brunellos and super Tuscans from Ornellaia and Sassicaia keep company with Opus One and a stray burgundy or two on the built-in shelves of the restaurant’s glass-enclosed wine room, visible from the dining room.
It’s tempting to characterize Taste’s menu as fresh food, simply prepared, and much of it is just that. The menu encourages diners to take advantage of the seafood shipped to the restaurant daily and offers whole fish grilled, baked in salt, or oven-roasted. Appetizers include carpaccio or tartare of dry aged filet beef; veal chops come grilled or Milanese style; and Amish rack of lamb, grilled or broiled.
But lurking in the list of appetizers among the raw baccala salad with grilled green peppers and the mozzarella topped with marinated crab meat is the fish soufflé ($10), a small blob of quivering paleness so petite you will wonder if you should have ordered two. It looks like a blancmange; it tastes like what it is: gloriously fresh fish bound with cream and egg. It is insanely rich, and very, very good. Order one and share. Simple, yes, but not dull.
The same can be said for the pastas, a veritable school of fruits de mer in various combinations. Monkfish ragout is paired with tubular paccheri pasta, olive oil, garlic, and cherry tomatoes. Lemon-scented tagliatelle wraps itself around baby clams and bottarga di muggine (dried gray mullet roe). At Taste, homemade ravioloni ($23), slightly thicker and larger than the average ravioli, are stuffed with potatoes and fish rather than cheese and napped with a chunky sauce dotted with clams. It’s a great, rustic dish, and could easily become a local favorite given our predilection for coddies, Baltimore’s ultimate fish and potato combination.
Pastas, risottos, seafood, and meat entrées at Taste all come with a house salad, a nice touch, though said salad feels more like a gesture than any great culinary endeavor. This is simple made institutional—iceberg lettuce, a sliver of red onion, and carrot. Much better, though devoid of greens, is the outstanding insalata di mare ($12), a brimming dish of shrimp, calamari, mussels, clams, and some of the sweetest octopus around pulled together with a light lemon dressing. This, and the grigliata Mediterranea ($28), an entrée portion of mixed grilled seafood, including more calamari, shrimp halved from head to tail, and little langoustines, all eyes and tentacles, split down the tail and sweet with meat, reflect the restaurant’s seriousness about seafood.
Desserts at Taste are made in-house, and according to a server, Chef Palumbo once prepared his regal-looking mousse of the Pope ($8) for the late Pope John Paul II, who supposedly returned the plate licked clean. This is another rich dish, appropriate for sharing, though when it arrives gilded with candied almonds and drizzled in caramel, you might be tempted to keep it for yourself.
Taste had been open a scant four weeks at the time of our visit, and a few tiny issues, such as a server’s inability to fully describe dishes or keep wine glasses filled, should have been addressed by now. And I imagine Taste will feel like the new kid on the block for a while, given the long and fond history that Towson has with Café Troia. Still, Taste’s old-world charm has an old-school appeal, and the kitchen is turning out some lovely dishes. Perhaps another papal visit is in order.
Taste Mediterranean Grille is open Monday-Friday for lunch and dinner; dinner only Saturday and Sunday.
> Email Mary K. Zajac