Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Restaurant Review: Cinghiale

Have you ever been to Florence, Italy? It's a beautiful, charming, romantic, historic and captivating city. I lived there for nearly three months one summer as part of a college exchange program. I loved it. One of the great things about Florence, in addition to the architecture, museums and shopping, are the fabulous restaurants. Some of the best food I've ever eaten exists in Florence. And some of the prettiest restaurants as well. What does this have to do with Cinghiale? Well I'll tell you. I think one of the main reasons why I like Cinghiale is because it brings me back to when I was 19 and spent my summer in Florence. This fairly new restaurant in the Harbor East area is downright gorgeous. It looks like it's been there for years - antique mirrors and ceiling fans, marble floors, worn wood tables and chairs. You feel like you're walking into a osteria in Florence that inspired painters, poets and writers. It has to be the most authentic-looking Italian restaurant in Baltimore. And I love how nostalgic it makes me feel the moment I enter through the huge double doors.
There are two parts to the restaurant - the more casual enoteca (Italian for wine bar) and the more formal dining room, which they call the osteria. The enoteca is what you encounter when you first walk in the door. It consists of marble-topped tables, no tablecloths, a long wooden bar and the salumeria. The salumeria alone is a feast for the eyes. This marble-topped open display of various cheeses, meats, olives and other antipasti offers patrons the option of coming in for a light snack and a glass of wine. Or you can go whole hog - no pun intended since Cinghiale means wild boar in Italian - and order from the main menu.
The main menu and the Salumeria offerings are available in both the enoteca and osteria. I've been to Cinghiale on four occasions now and have dined in various spots in the restaurant. The first time, my husband and I sat at the bar. I'm going to confess something here - we are bar rats. Whenever we go out to eat we almost ALWAYS prefer to sit at the bar. There are various reasons. One, I'm super impatient and I feel like I have the most control over the speed of service at the bar where the bartender is always within earshot. Secondly, it is very comforting for us to be near the alcohol where we can see it, touch it, smell it and know it won't be too long before we can get a drink. No, I kid I kid. We're really not alcoholics! But we do enjoy a drink or two with our meal and we also enjoy chatting with the bartender and even sometimes other strangers at the bar. We're just such social, fascinating people that we feel the need to share ourselves with so many. Again, I kid. But honestly, sitting at the bar you learn a lot more about the restaurant, what's good, what's not etc., than you would at a table. It's where the action is and as I said before, obviously we need to be where it's at. Also, as I mentioned, I'm impatient and don't usually want to wait for the hostess to seat me. With the bar, we can just beeline right over, grab two chairs and begin ordering.
Anyway! The second time I went to Cinghiale was for a wine tasting with my mom. They were tasting Italian wines for the Pinot Noir drinkers, a group to which my mom and I belong. They have these events at Cinghiale every week - check out the website,
Cinghiale Osteria - and we really enjoyed the one we went to. They tasted 8 wines and gave a nice little antipasti plate to go along with it from the salumeria. Their wine expert was very informative and presented the wines in an approachable manner.
On the third visit my family went for Mother's Day. We sat at the most interesting table - it looked like it was made out of a huge piece of old wood. It added a rustic charm to the meal and made me feel even more like I was back in Italy, dining at some centuries old table in sunny Tuscany. On the fourth visit, we went with a group of friends for a birthday dinner.
A few things about the food. First of all, it's not cheap if you want to get full. If you just want a snack or a light meal, you could probably walk away with spending about $30-$50 - not including alcohol. They have a price fix menu for $49 that allows you to choose an appetizer, a primi pasta course and a secondi meat or fish course. This, in my opinion, is a pretty good deal. Especially for a woman. The portions are small, for the most part, but you get to taste three different dishes. I did the $49 price fix each time I went and was surprisingly full at the end of the meal - despite noticing how meager some of the portions were. Now here's my PSA for men. You may go away slightly hungry from Cinghiale if you're a big eater. For example, the night we went for the birthday dinner, several of the guys had issues with the portion size compared to price.
That being said, every time I've gone the food has been very good. But, like I mentioned above, not cheap. With wine and dessert (which by the way I wouldn't recommend. Tried it twice, disliked it twice. It's not their strongpoint at Cinghiale. So fill up on their fresh, homemade pastas and bread and skip dessert), you're probably looking at around $175 per person. And that's with the $49 price fix, tip and tax. Their menu constantly changes with the seasons and what's fresh, so it's hard to give recommendations on actual dishes. Honestly though, I don't think you can go wrong here. Just keep in mind, portions are small, prices are big (think a tomato salad with blue cheese for $15 and all it has on the plate are 5 tomato slices covered with a slight smattering of blue cheese crumbles). It's definitely a special occasion restaurant - unless, like myself, you can make dinner out of wine, cheese and prosciutto while imagining the Piazza della Signoria is outside the window, rather than a construction fence. Ahhh Florence....

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