- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Simple pleasures.

Those two words best describe Maria’s Sicilian Ristorante in downtown Annapolis.

Maria Priola and her son Carlo oversee daily operations at the restaurant behind Market House and a few short steps from City Dock.

Sicily-born Maria and her husband, Joe, opened Maria’s in l974 as a small pizza shop. In l989, it was transformed into a restaurant, which later expanded and seats more than 200.

The restaurant does not offer the most innovative or trendy cuisine. Its decor is not sleek and modern. Rather, Maria’s is comforting. It is a place to relax and enjoy a traditional Sicilian-style meal and good company.

The waiters are attentive and prepared to inform you of the specials the kitchen is offering.

A respectable wine list is heavy on Italian but also visits other regions of the world. Many selections are available by the glass.

A small, warm loaf of fluffy bread is delivered to your table along with a dipping plate with olive oil, Parmesan cheese, crushed black and red peppercorns, garlic, anchovy and fresh herbs. Unlike what is offered at some restaurants, the bread at Maria’s is soft enough to sop up the very flavorful oil.

Antipasti, soups and salads are all mostly traditional offerings, but there usually is a special or two. The antipasto special one evening was shrimp in champagne sauce: four large shrimp in a cream sauce with a hint of Dijon mustard.

Daily entries on the menu include bruschetta, mozzarella carrozza, fried calamari and clams marinara. Soups include pasta and beans, tortellini in brodo and minestrone primavera; spinach, Caesar and tossed salads are offered.

Tradition reigns in the pasta offerings — penne, spaghetti, linguini, fettuccine, rigatoni or capellini with sauces such as Bolognese, carbonara, primavera, puttanesca and Alfredo. Baked ravioli and eggplant Parmigiana headline the baked pasta offerings.

The leader of the eight pollo plates is the chicken scarparella ($20), in which strips of chicken tenderloin are sauteed in white wine and lemon butter with Italian sausage and served over linguini. The sausage was well spiced and full of flavor but not so hot as to overwhelm the dish. The tenderloin cut provided very tender yet meaty pieces of chicken, and the sauce was wonderfully light but sparked with flavor.

Staples such as chicken cacciatore, Parmigiana, Sorrentina and Fiorentina fill out the offerings. Half-orders of pasta and chicken dishes are available for children younger than 12.

Twelve fish dishes are sure to offer something for the seafood lover in you. Red snapper Livornese ($27) was sauteed in Maria’s marinara with capers, with three kinds of olives and topped with baby-neck clams. The light marinara had a bright flavor and did not overtake the fresh taste of the fish. Clams were fresh as well. The entree was served over linguini. Rockfish alla Kelly and Maryland crab cakes remind you that you are in Annapolis.

For the meat lover, there are broiled filet mignon, filet Marsala and broiled New York steak. There’s even a New York strip pizzaiola if you are in need of marinara with your meat. A 12-ounce veal chop ($39) was stuffed with mozzarella and prosciutto and finished in the oven with brandy cream sauce and multicolored peppercorns and served on linguini. This special really showcased the art of Italian cooking.

The prosciutto was a bold contrast to the tender, mild veal chop. The sauce was rich and flavorful but not heavy. The only complaint was that the peppercorns were sprinkled liberally over the pasta as well as the chop, so occasionally they became a little overwhelming.

Eight veal offerings regularly are on the menu, including saltimbocca, piccata and Marsala.

Dessert choices also are traditional, and most of them are homemade. Spumoni, tiramisu, rum cake, hazelnut cake and cheesecake all are tempting.

Bordering on decadent is the tartufo, an Italian ice cream truffle. We opted for two desserts that feature Maria’s famous cannoli cream — the traditional cannoli ($6) plus the cassata cake ($8). The filling lives up to its reputation, for it is creamy and rich and just sweet enough, accented with small chocolate chips. Stuffed inside a crispy cannoli shell, it is heaven. Paired with the moist sponge cake, it is even more enticing. The cassata also comes in a chocolate version, with chocolate cake and chocolate cannoli filling. It’s definitely the Italian version of Death by Chocolate.

RESTAURANT: Maria’s Sicilian Ristorante, 12 Market Space, Annapolis; 410/268-2112

HOURS: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily

PRICES: Dinner entrees $12 to $39; desserts $6 to $8

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street or nearby garage

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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