Food & Drink

Review: Osteria Pirata is a Lively Take on Classic Italian in Fells Point

Star chef Ashish Alfred's new concept has grown up quickly since opening last fall.
Chilled shrimp puttanesca with chile aioli sauce. —Photography by Justin Tsucalas

Restaurants evolve and grow. Last fall, when we first visited Osteria Pirata, Ashish Alfred’s lively take on the too-often stodgily executed classic Italian restaurant concept, it was newly open and still trying to find its footing. While the food was excellent, the service lacked, shall we say, polish. When we returned in January, we found a smattering of new dishes, originals that we loved, and servers and bartenders who knew their stuff.

Alfred, whose original Baltimore restaurant, the exquisite Duck Duck Goose, is around the corner in Fells Point, has worked in Italian restaurants throughout his career, and finds the food approachable. The same can be said for the design of the Osteria Pirata, which means Pirate Tavern in Italian. (The backs of coasters detail why the British dubbed Baltimore a “nest of pirates” during the War of 1812.) Baltimore design firms Cohere and PI.KL Studio created an interior that’s bright and airy. Yellow is a primary color here, and there are fun quirks, like a motorbike that hangs above the stairway to the lower level.

From our first visits, we found the atmosphere welcoming and the food fantastic. The menu has ebbed and flowed since the restaurant’s opening, but its core remains the same: contemporary takes on Italian classics. Starters are particularly strong. You won’t find fried calamari, ubiquitous on many Italian restaurant menus, here. Instead, it’s braised and served with fregola pearl pasta and a jalapeño pesto sauce that provides pop. Chilled shrimp puttanesca, served atop diced tomatoes and cucumbers with a chile aioli sauce, is crisp and refreshing.

But the star is a giant arancini ball that could easily be a meal. During a trip to Italy, Alfred didn’t encounter many of the smaller, golf ball-sized arancini often found in American restaurants. “All I had were standalone, ostrich-egg-sized things,” he said. “It was people’s entire lunch.” The interior of risotto with melted mozzarella melds together perfectly after the ball is fried then finished in the oven.

Mains include stalwarts like chicken and eggplant Parm, and on our last visit, a tasty gnocchi piccata. But we’d steer most people toward the pastas, many of which are made in-house. The best of the bunch was the soul-warming gemelli with pesto and sweet Italian sausage and the 40-layer lasagna. It arrives on its side (all the better to count the layers) in a wonderful tomato sugo. While its edges were crisp, its interior was nice and gooey—yet it held its form.

Even the best of food can’t overcome spotty service, and while everyone we encountered during our first two visits was perfectly nice, the operation was leaky. When we walked through the door, we weren’t greeted for quite some time. Eventually we were seated—at a table that wasn’t set. During a chat with a friendly server, she mentioned that she hadn’t eaten at the restaurant. She didn’t know whether a pasta dish we inquired about was served with red or white sauce. But these issues are easily corrected when a restaurant has potential. Upon our return in January, the service was on its way.

Osteria Pirata has grown up quickly, and we’re fans of what it’s become.


OSTERIA PIRATA: 1640 Thames St., Fells Point, 443-835-4106. HOURS: Mon.-Thurs. 4-9:30 p.m.; Fri. 4-10 p.m.; Sat. 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun. 10 a.m.- 9:30 p.m. PRICES: Appetizers: $14-24; pastas and entrees: $18-39; desserts: $12.