Years ago, I found myself creeping along the quiet streets of a swath near Baltimore's Little Italy, squinting through the darkness as I tried to find Charleston, a restaurant that had been highly recommended.
Even though this roughly eight-block area was flanked by the perennially packed and fratty Fells Point on one side and the touristy Inner Harbor on the other at the time, its streets were still largely undeveloped in the late 1990s. Charleston, a Southern-inflected French restaurant, was an early adopter in the neighborhood and once we'd located it, we were glad we went. The meal was phenomenal and it was thrilling to be at a place that felt like it was on the cusp of something larger.
The husband and I recently returned to Baltimore for a short visit and decided to trek to Charleston to take a look at the place where we'd had one of the first romantic dinners of our courtship. The restaurant, helmed by the talented Cindy Wolf in the kitchen, is still there and hopping but the area around it has since become unrecognizable. Now named Harbor East, the area has sprouted gleaming condiminium, office and hotel buildings and has become as packed with restaurants, cafes and bars as its nearby neighborhoods. (You can check out a piece I wrote for the New York Times Travel section this past weekend on Harbor East here.)
Amid the current hubbub, a new little place caught our eye: Vino Rosina, a modern Italian restaurant in the Bagby Furniture Company Building, a historic red-brick structure that used to be a factory. Outside on the street, we could hear laughter wafting out along with the intoxicating smells of oven-roasted meats. So of course, we decided to step in and give the place a whirl …
Inside, the setting was lovely — modern and spacious, with exposed brick walls.
From our table in the middle of the dining room, we couldn't help but gawk at the open kitchen and its peculiar arrangement.
The restaurant is very proud of its chef, who happens to be Jesse Sandlin, a former “Top Chef” contestant. And on this evening in August, Sandlin was in full view of all diners, perched on a chair right next to the kitchen, barking orders at servers with the gusto (and volume) of a short-order cook.
The owners of this place have owned Rosina Gourmet, a very popular sandwich shop in Baltimore, for years. But the thing at Vino Rosina is its small plates and roasted mains, made with ingredients culled as much as is possible from local farms and purveyors — and a hefty wine-by-the-glass selection, which currently features no less than 55 varieties.
The first thing that caught our eye was the bread with sheep's cheese mousse ($9), which came in a massive dish that nearly took up the entire table. The mousse was not bad — be warned, though, if you're not a fan of salt, this may not be for you.
The arugula BLT salad ($6) was, again, on the salty side. (As a lover of salt, I wasn't complaining, however.) The buttermilk dressing was lovely (and ample) — as were the tomatoes and bits of crumbled bacon.
Oven-roasted anything is big at Vino Rosina — even the cannelloni ($16) is done in the oven. Stuffed with rabbit, goat's cheese and a shallot confit, this cannelloni was as long as it was girthy. The meat was tender and the dish was nicely done.
Although the intriguing-sounding 16-legged burger (14), featuring a patty that combined pork, lamb, bison and beef, had called to us. Unfortunately, the kitchen had run out of it by the time we ordered.
Our server highly recommended the roasted half chicken on a bed of spinach ($20), however — and we weren't disappointed. The chicken was packed with flavor, juicy and had a nice crust. The big slabs of herb butter that came half-melted on top of it were overkill, however — these, too, were very salty. A tiny bit of the butter is nice but anything more than that really detracts from the lovely simplicity of the chicken. I'd recommend asking for it on the side. Less, after all, is always more.
Now, the portions here are healthy — and the food is rich. So by the time the dessert menus arrived, we were reluctant. The blackberry tart held appeal, however — it turned out to be a rustic version stuffed with blackberries and paired with house-made ice-cream.
As we left Vino Rosina, swinging the bag holding our half-eaten chicken, the smells of the restaurant lingered with us long after, trailing as we strolled through Harbor East, marveling at the noisy new bars, filled with carousing crowds, and peering into spiffy boutiques filled with expensive jeans and even more expensive shoes.
The changes that have happened in this neighborhood since our early date at Charleston all those years ago have indeed been impressive. And you know, whether it's in neighborhoods or relationships, progress is usually a good thing.
Vino Rosina, 507 S. Exeter Street, 410.528.8600, http://www.vinorosina.com/index.html