- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Pietro Priola’s new Annapolis restaurant is the beginning of changes to come for outer West Street. His Pesce Grande Italian Grille has become one of the hottest meeting places this year.

Located in the West II shopping center, Mr. Priola’s redo of the former Piezano’s pizza restaurant is the start of a brighter future for what in the past was a sometimes crime-plagued area.

Pesce Grande is right around the corner from the construction site of the Annapolis Towne Centre at Parole, which is expected to open in 2008. Luxury condominiums, a hotel, grocery store and other retail shops are planned to change the landscape.

For now, the Italian tapas restaurant is a big fish in the small outer West Street pond. If early reviews are any indication of success, Pesce Grande can be expected to stay around for the long haul.

On your first visit, try the Pesce Grande’s Table for Two ($49). The house suggests eight small-plate courses that enable you to explore the menu.

Arriving at our table as minicourses were the following: mixed olives ($4); insalata caprese ($7); calamari ($7); rockfish alla Pietro ($10); Mediterranean strip steak ($11); rigatoni ($6); spinach alla Italiana ($3); and a dessert ($4).

Add that up, and it comes to $52, so you save a couple dollars.

The mixed olives were a generous variety of pitted olives served on top of mixed greens. It’s hard to go wrong with good olives, and these had the right tang to get our appetites primed.

Insalata caprese is slices of mozzarella, tomato, roasted peppers, artichoke hearts, olive oil, garlic and basil. The mild mozzarella provides a perfect contrast to the stronger garlic and basil. The peppers and artichoke hearts were bursting with flavor.

The calamari was to die for. Very lightly battered and deep-fried only until perfectly crisp, it is served with a tasty house marinara dipping sauce.

The squid was fresh and melted in your mouth, unlike some of the frozen, rubber-band-like tubes and tentacles some kitchens deliver.

The rockfish was sauteed in lemon butter and white wine with capers. Think chicken picatta, only better. The sauce was just rich enough, but not overpowering. The rockfish was perfectly cooked, flaky and flavorful.

Rigatoni was a simple pasta plate with the marinara sauce, served with Parmagiana-Reggiano and was just the right change from the plates that preceded it.

The spinach was served piping hot and will be well received by any lover of fresh garlic.

The only inconsistency with the meal was the Mediterranean strip. Frankly, it didn’t live up to its name. The steak certainly was tender and flavorful, and the salad was fresh and crisp, with a perfect touch of bitter greens, but the dish was bland compared to the rest of the courses. There was no spice on the steak, and the rosemary and peppercorn dressing on the salad was discernable only at the very end — in the sopping of the juices remaining on the plate.

The dessert course featured two petite cannoli. The creamy filling was sweetened perfectly, and the pastry was lighter than in some versions. Strawberry slices provided a nice accent.

Pesce Grande has a handful of daily entree specials that also can be ordered as a small plate.

The red snapper with saffron ($10) again showcased the kitchen’s expertise with seafood. The fish was fresh and flavorful, and the sauce had that wonderful distinct saffron flavor.

For the meat lover, the menu has plenty to offer. Three entrees each for veal and steak and two different plates each of chicken and lamb chops are available in both the small and grand sizes.

Fresh clams sauteed in garlic, olive oil and white wine with a touch of marinara is a standout of the five pasta offerings.

Gourmet and brick-oven pizzas are worth a try. They come in 9-inch personal, 12-inch medium or 16-inch large sizes and range in price from $7 to $20.

At lunchtime, many of the same tapas are offered along with more than a dozen sandwiches.

For the vegetarian, eggplant and roasted red peppers ($8) is sliced eggplant lightly breaded and sauteed in olive oil, with roasted peppers and topped with a little marinara sauce with cheese. The kitchen was out of panino bread at the time, but the rye did a good job rounding out the rich and sweet flavor of the peppers. Our waiter said all the breads are baked fresh.

The wine list is small but has a good representation of domestic and Italian wines, with several good values among the white Italian wines.

RESTAURANT: Pesce Grande Italian Grille, 2019 West St., Annapolis; 410/224-0205

HOURS: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until a half-hour past midnight Friday and Saturday

PRICES: Soups and salads $5 to $12; sandwiches $7 to $10; pasta $7 to $16; pizzas $7 to $20; calzones $6 to $10; small plates $3 to $12; regular plates $6 to $25; desserts $3 to $6

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: On-site

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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