Tue 7 Jul 2009
If DC were a person, Baltimore would be our scrappy, chain smoking cousin. You may not want to be roommates, but they sure are good for a fun, short visit.
If you only go to Baltimore once or twice a year, do yourself a favor and make one of those trips for the annual Hon Fest. Hon Fest is, hands down, the best street festival on Earth. Hon Fest celebrates all things kitschy Baltimore, namely the beehived, animal printed, cat-eye glassed Balmer diner waitress who calls everyone “hon.” Honfest has been going strong since 1994 in Hampden, a cute nook of a neighborhood in Baltimore. Celebrants get dolled up in their finest wigs and neon boas, mingling happily with families and scary dudes with neck tats (this is still Baltimore, after all).
Like any self-respecting street festival, Hon Fest features an array of street vendors hawking their wares, from cute t-shirts to Hon paraphernalia to food. This is Maryland and what would a festival be without the world’s biggest crabcake? And don’t overlook pit beef, a unique kind-of-BBQ Baltimore specialty sandwich.
What really drew us in, however, wasn’t a street vendor but the promise of pies. Dangerously Delicious Pies, carved into a cozy townhouse on Chestnut Ave, is a pie shop designed to supplement musician founder Rodney Henry’s income. Before we even took a bit of our slice, I was dying to like this place. It’s just cool. There are nearly 30 sweet pies on the menu and additional savory pies and quiche, alongside coffee and ice cream. The guy behind the register is friendly and helpful but looked like he’d be just at home slinging a soundboard as baked goods. He politely walked us through the slices on offer that afternoon and we settled on the Baltimore Bomb – a pie made with Baltimore’s famous Berger cookies.
Berger Cookies, for the uninitiated, are a crazy sugar high concoction featuring a sugar cookie smeared with an equal amount of fudgey icing. Seriously. Its like a 1:1 ratio of cookie and icing. So imagine this crumbled up into a buttery crust and served warm. Wow. We have hit the triple Ds: Delicious, deadly, and I think the whole thing gave me Type II diabetes. Still, next time we are in Baltimore I am so totally going back.
Dangerously Delicious Pies (2 locations)
3547 Chestnut Ave
Baltimore, MD 21230
Dinner after our sugar shock subsided and our wish list for the next trip after the jump!
If there’s one thing (okay, we’ll admit it – there are several) Baltimore has over Washington, it’s Little Italy. Charm City’s version is snugged right up against the revitalized Inner Harbor, so you can bet it sees its share of spillover tourists. But you know what? They don’t care.
Baltimore’s Little Italy looks and feels like something off of a movie set - say Goodfellas, or a Bronx Tale or – maybe - some of the scenes from DeNiro’s scenes in The Godfather, Part II. This is a neighborhood that has stuck together despite all of the outside influences, unlike some of Washington’s erstwhile ethnic enclaves. And while we go through the motions year after year with our Festa Italiana, Baltimore delivers the real deal with Italian street festivals honoring Saint Anthony (in June) and Saint Gabriel (in August).
On this trip, we knew we wanted to hit up a traditional Italian restaurant for dinner, so we opted for La Tavola. Their chef-owner, Carlo Vignotto, hails from Venice and his cooking seems to have retained a lot of the Venetian influence. We started with one of the special appetizers of the evening, a salad of sardines, fennel and onion in a light vinaigrette. The sardines were lightly breaded and retained just a bit of their briny flavor, but it was nicely offset by the flavor of the fennel and the supporting players in the dish. It definitely set the tone for our dishes yet to come.
And there were plenty to choose from – enough that it took us two passes from the very attentive waiter before we were able to finally make up our minds. I decided to go for the chef’s combination of a traditional Venetian dish with a local delicacy: a squid-ink pasta paired with Chesapeake crab and cherry tomatoes. It was wonderful, as the pasta’s al dente texture played off the tender chunks of crabmeat. The light sweetness of the crab and the acid of the tomato balanced each other well, and the whole dish managed to avoid olive oil overload. For Elizabeth, a linguine tossed with black truffles and taleggio cheese was too tempting to resist. This was an amazing study in earthy richness, as the handmade pasta faded into the background and allowed the assertive cheese and the funky truffles to go toe-to-toe. Needless to say, this was not a light dish, and we ended up taking a decent portion of it home with us.
That was actually one of the most pleasant surprises of the evening. We read several reviews that had spoken rather critically of the restaurant’s smaller portions – no doubt in comparison to the massive family-style presentations that are found up and down Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi Street (her father and brother both served as mayors of Baltimore and the Speaker of the House cut her political teeth here). But we found La Tavola’s portions to be adequately sized, especially considering the quality of the ingredients used and the big flavors that each dish offered.
Though the faux frescoes on the walls give the interior of the restaurant a cheesy quality akin to that of the Olive Garden, that’s probably the only apt comparison between this authentic slice of Little Italy and the ubiquitous chain. It would also be incorrect to compare La Tavola to a ’red sauce’ place like many of the oldest restaurants in the neighborhood. Anyone looking for either of these kinds of Eye-talian experience would do well to pass La Tavola by. But if you’re looking for a Venetian take on Italian cuisine – one that blends classic dishes with new interpretations – La Tavola is a great choice in Little Italy.
We have a couple places on our wishlist for our next trip to Baltimore and the list seems to keep on growing. Strawberries in Paris’ review has completely convinced me we need to try Bicycle in Federal Hill. We’re also eager to try the always well-reviewed Charleston as well as Pazo for casual tapas. Next time Hampden isn’t swarmed for Hon Fest, we’re eager to give Cafe Hon a spin. Plus we’ve got to swing by Chap’s for some of Baltimore’s best pit beef. What do you think? Any other recommendations?