Simplicity has its charms, and sometimes the weary restaurant reviewer, having gorged for months on fine and fancy foods, wants nothing more than to succumb to simple pleasures. At such times, I crave a place where there are no wildly inventive dishes or highly touted exotica on the menu, no hipster digs lined with gleaming surfaces or baroque décor, and where there’s no need to care whether I’m wearing the right brand of jeans. The food is straightforward and good in my fantasy restaurant, and so is the waitstaff. It happens to feature the cuisine of my childhood—say, the kind you’d find in an Italian kitchen—and tastes like grandma’s, i.e., mine. And, as long as I’m dreaming, this down-home trattoria also offers, without much fanfare, one of the best Italian wine lists in the region.
CuVino happens to be just that kind of place. The only problem is, it’s in Timonium and not in my neighborhood—but, hey, that’s what cars and cheap gas are for. Tucked away in a suburban strip mall, where one often discovers such off-the-beaten-path gems, the restaurant previously housed a doctor’s office, all traces of which have been banished by owners Angelo and Ralph DiBiasi.
The space has been transformed into a bright and cheerful homespun place with tiles on the floor and brick-red tabletops—a bit noisy in the front by the bar, a little cozier and quieter in the back, where booths and tables host families and first-daters. A wall of wine racks holding bottles from every region of Italy—from Alto Adige to Sardinia—announces that the trattoria is also a wine store.
The brothers DiBiasi have modeled their menu on the stuff Italian-American families put on the table when they gather for traditional Sunday dinner: plates of eggplant Parmigiana and lasagna, veal saltimbocca, and homemade gnocchi with peas.
The menu has been modeled after the stuff Italian-Americans put on the table when they gather for Sunday dinner.
It all sounds very standard-issue, but the tastes are vivid and well executed in a way that gives credence to that highly overused word, authentic. Take, for example, CuVino’s simple bowl of grilled calamari, whose tendrils of toothsome squid are perfectly cooked, doused in sea salt and good olive oil, and showered with capers. It’s an unfussy approach that carries over to other antipasti, like the humble, yet hearty, bruschetta—nothing but slices of sweet, fresh tomatoes, and fresh ricotta on a sturdy homemade slab of rustic Italian bread—or a plate of lightly fried, crisp potato croquettes stuffed with mozzarella and prosciutto.
The entrees are similarly basic and beautiful. A long slide of lasagna is composed of nothing but a dense meat sauce nestled between sheets of house-made translucent pasta smothered in lots and lots of melting cheese. The Bolognese clinging to a mound of bucatini is precisely as it should be—rich with meat, a touch of cream, and just the right amount of tomato.
You know you’ve found a truly decent Italian-American place when the chef refuses to commit the near-ubiquitous sins of so many red-sauce joints: too much sauce on the pasta and too much sugary tomato paste in the sauce. Here, the marinara is made with bright red cherry tomatoes, and the linguini with white-clam sauce comes dotted with juicy specimens in the shell. The meatballs are soft, pillowy orbs that melt in the mouth. No shortcuts, no cans. My absolute favorite? The “Autunno” rigatoni laced with homemade ground Italian sausage, wild mushrooms, and thyme in a prosecco-based wine sauce.
Plenty of customers are coming in just to grab a pizza and a bottle of wine to go, but it’s not a bad idea to simply hunker down with a large pie—there are thin-crust New York-style pizzas and thick-crusted Sicilian ones—and concentrate on that deeply impressive roster of wines. A shrimp limoncello thin-crust pizza spiked with lemon zest, garlic, and spinach went beautifully with an austere Vernaccia di San Gimignano, one of about 30 choices on CuVino’s $25 list. That’s the tip of the proverbial iceberg—if you’ve ever had a notion to master the complexities of Italian wine, this is the place to go to school.
Dessert is not my favorite part of an Italian meal, but I gave in to the wishes of my dinner partner and ordered the perennially popular tiramisu. It was a delicate and creamy wedge of goodness, about what you’d expect from a place that seems to make nearly everything with great care. Next time this weary food critic tires of the ornate and the overly trendy, I’m heading to Timonium.