Paolo Romeo believes that food is art.
The chef-owner of Artful Gourmet, which has been an Owings Mills mainstay for just over a decade, isn't wildly avant-garde in the kitchen. He doesn't take chances on creative dishes.
But Romeo does take an artist's care with his capable interpretations of Italian food and global favorites. And the restaurant's adoption of the food-is-art theme adds charm to a menu stocked with familiar fare.
His conservative approach, which focuses on well-worn classics like lamb chops and simple pastas, appears to be a hit with locals, who keep the restaurant busy. Even on a Tuesday night, the place was packed, both inside and on the patio in front of the restaurant. Close to 9 p.m., the inside had mostly emptied, but the patio tables were still filled, keeping the staff hopping.
Artful Gourmet's decor makes a few half-hearted attempts to carry out the theme, with framed prints (heavy on the Baroque period) and a wall full of empty frames. But the menu itself is where the gimmick is most noticeable: every dish is named after an artist, period, or work of art.
Sometimes the connection is obvious: Italian pastas have Italian names. But often, the names are tough to decode. We weren't sure how a shrimp-salad sandwich related to Georgia O'Keefe, but it was fun to speculate.
Cutesy names aside, Romeo knows what he's doing in the kitchen. For the most part, our dishes were well-seasoned, nicely cooked and made with high-quality ingredients.
Take that shrimp-salad sandwich, for example. Served on excellent sourdough bread, it was made with plump shrimp with the right mix of spice and creamy mayonnaise. Sweet potato fries were salty enough to balance the sweet and crunchy enough for their soft centers.
Romeo is Italian, so it's no surprise that his Italy-influenced dishes shine. We loved the Mini Pieta — a rolled eggplant stuffed with ricotta, mozzarella and roasted red peppers, battered (but just barely), fried and dressed with a bright tomato vodka sauce. (A larger version of the Pieta is available as an entree.)
The Giordano, a deceptively simple pasta dish named for the Baroque artist, was equally impressive. Good pappardelle, mixed with a fresh sauce of cherry tomatoes, capers, garlic, basil and mozzarella, was bright and savory — a testament to the quality of its ingredients.
Despite the name, the Veronese Shrimp appetizer felt more French than Italian, with tender shrimp swimming in an intriguingly piquant sauce of wine and gorgonzola. (Veronese was an Italian Renaissance painter.)
The Provost Portabello, named for a Flemish painter of the early Northern Renaissance, was well-conceived, though not perfectly executed. A portabello mushroom was stuffed with crab and topped with mozzarella and roasted red peppers before baking. Out of the oven, the mushroom was drizzled with balsamic vinegar.
Conceptually, it sounded good, but the crab's time in the oven left it dry, which sapped the energy out of the whole dish.
The Masaccio — grilled lamb chops named after another Italian Renaissance painter — earned mixed reviews. The source of the controversy was an orange-balsamic reduction. Some of us thought it was citrusy with just the right touch of sweetness; others thought it was overly acidic and unappealing.
We agreed, though, that the chops were cooked nicely and the accompanying redskin mashed potatoes and broccoli were well-seasoned and enjoyable.
Artful Gourmet features a special cocktail and wine every day. During our visit, the drink was a Kiwi Collins, a sweet concoction that refreshed but didn't pack much of a flavor punch.
The special wine, spicy and smooth Terra d'Oro Zinfandel, was more successful — and a good match for the Giordano pasta.
Dessert consisted of two generous slices of cake: one a light, sweet-tart limoncello cake and the other a moist Pimlico cake, with layers of sweet cream and a rich chocolate topping. Neither were made in-house, but both were lovely.
The only dim spot in our evening came from the service. During our visit, Artful Gourmet was busy — probably due, in part, to unseasonably warm weather. Maybe the weather caught the restaurant off-guard and it was understaffed.
Unfortunately for us, that meant we waited 20 minutes for our first drinks, which arrived at the same time as our appetizers. Our waiter was friendly and enthusiastic, but at times clearly overwhelmed. We couldn't catch his attention; he was too busy darting from one spot to another.
But we had a pleasant meal in front of us, a gorgeous evening, and art history and food trends to debate. Under those circumstances, lingering on the patio wasn't too much of a hardship.
Where: 9433 Common Brook Road, Suite 102/103, Owings Mills
Contact: 410-356-2606; http://www.artfulgourmet.com
Open: Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and daily for dinner.
Prices: Appetizers and salads $8-$15; sandwiches $11-$15; entrees $17-32.
Food: Italian-influenced dishes, plus a selection that's global, with options ranging from quesadillas to paella to filet mignon.
Service: Friendly but scattered.
Best dishes: Veronese Shrimp appetizer, Mini Pieta (eggplant rollatini with spicy red sauce), Giordano (pappardelle with cherry tomatoes and mozzarella).
Parking: Lot behind restaurant.
Children: Kids' menu covers the basics, such as pasta, pizza and chicken tenders.
Noise level: Moderate
Dress code: No dress code, but most diners wear dressy casual attire.