I have my own version of a culinary crystal ball, and, with few exceptions, it’s almost always accurate. Here it is: Long before the entrees arrive, once the water and wine are flowing, and the bread and the salad have been served, I can predict how the rest of the meal is likely to go. These items act as a sort of litmus test, telling me all that I need to know. If all goes well, I’m an eager guest, excited to see what will follow. If not, I tend to feel like a hostage, and the meal becomes something that I dread.
On my first of four visits to Lupa Trattoria Romana, a Roman rebrand of the former Petit Louis space in Columbia, I felt a sense of inner peace almost immediately. The requested “chilled” water was pleasingly cold, and a carafe for refilling was left on the table. The house-made bread was thick and chewy and served alongside a bottle of earthy EVOO. The salad itself, a fresh bed of arugula tossed with lemon vinaigrette and Parmigiano, was simple—and sublime. And a bottle of Spanish rosé summarily arrived after it was ordered, then was placed on a silver wine coaster.
Co-owner Tony Foreman and his business partner, Cindy Wolf, have been feeding Baltimoreans for more than two decades at their restaurants, including Charleston, where Wolf is a chef, and Cinghiale (where Lupa executive chef James Lewandowski does double time). Despite the comings and goings of so many spots in the area, they remain the consummate restaurant owners.
Foreman says that they decided to rebrand the space because the Petit Louis French bistro concept, which works so well in Roland Park, didn’t work as well when Louis opened in Columbia. “People thought that French food was more for special occasions,” explains Foreman. “We were packed on the weekends, but not during the week.” Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Foreman himself is now a father of two and likely recognized the need for more casual, family-friendly spots with good food.
In keeping with the homey Italian concept at Lupa, Old World still lifes adorn the pumpkin-colored walls, and the dining room is littered with large farm tables for family-style dining. Lupa—meaning she-wolf, a sly wink to Chef Wolf’s name—is Cinghiale’s more casual cousin. Its menu, whose origins are inspired by the traditions of la cucina Romana—one of the world’s most populist cuisines—is humble and inexpensive and uses simple techniques to highlight seasonal ingredients.
Lupa’s offerings highlight many of the hallmarks of Roman cuisine, including bitter vegetables (escarole salad here), oxtail (puréed into ragu and served with fettucine), fried vegetables (like crisp threads of carrots on top of a sautéed calamari appetizer), and thick, Roman-style pizza. The wine list—featuring bottles from Central Italy, America, and France, plus 20 wines by the glass—is reasonably priced.
Entrees are similarly enticing. For the primi, or starch course, there are some dozen pastas to pick from, including the hallmark Roman pastas cacio e pepe and Perciatelli all’ Amatriciana (guanciale, roasted tomatoes, and dried chilies). I’m a sucker for seafood, so indulged in the spaghetti neri, squid ink spaghetti with grilled calamari, shrimp, lemon, and dried chili. The inky, house-made black strands of pasta tossed in olive oil and shrimp stock strongly tasted of the sea and, when paired with the seafood, were a paragon of umami.
Sticking with the sea, I also enjoyed the sweet and herbaceous pan-seared bronzino with its carrot purée swoosh and a sauce of lemon butter and fennel pollen pesto.
It would be easy to overlook the featured chicken dish, but you shouldn’t. In this case, the poultry is wrapped in prosciutto and served on a bed of creamy farro with Swiss chard in a red-wine reduction sauce. This version, a riff on veal saltimbocca, is flavor-packed and anything but ordinary.
For dessert, there’s a wonderful selection—20 flavors in all—of gelati and sorbetti. On various visits, we mixed and matched the stracciatella, hazelnut, chocolate, and tiramisu replete with giant hunks of espresso-soaked ladyfingers. Finally, when in Rome, do as the Romans do, and cleanse your palate with a shot of limoncello.
LUPA TRATTORIA ROMANA. 10215 Wincopin Cir., Columbia, 410-964-9999. HOURS: Brunch: Tues.-Fri. 11 a.m.-2 :30 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m.; dinner: Mon.-Sat. 5-10 p.m., Sun. 5-9 p.m. PRICES: Appetizers: $9-28; pastas: $15-21; entrees: $23-29; desserts: $8.75. AMBIANCE: Rustic Italian.