Mediterraneo, on Federal Hill, is a culinary greeter for the town's cuisine — at the beginning of Atwells Avenue, near the arch. Their reputation is such that they can brag about celebrity guests occasionally being sighted — a Rudolph Giuliani now, a Cameron Diaz then — and the kitchen's knack with dishes has created many loyalists among local fine dining aficionados.
The prices aren't sky high, though you can spring for a $26 seafood casserole appetizer or a $35 filet mignon main course. Among the starters, their fried calamari has always been prepared as local tradition dictates, but they also offer an inventive appetizer, crostini con portobello e manzo ($10), with roasted mushrooms and sautéed tenderloin tips atop grilled Tuscan bread in a Madeira and thyme cream sauce. Not too shabby.
While we're talking dishes that don't elicit yawns, their grilled salmon is topped with a spicy dill salmoriglio, a busily populated diced concoction that brings together fennel and Serrano chiles. But Mediterraneo's signature strength is definitive preparations of traditional Italian dishes, as the penne arrabbiata described below will attest. I still remember a Bolognese sauce I had there a decade ago because its veal, pork, and beef were in discernible bits rather than being ground together.
That's all prelude to my not having dinner there this time. When I noticed there was a three-course prix fixe lunch available, I thought I'd check it out. When I noticed it was only $14.95, I knew I would (it's served Monday through Friday from 11:30 am to 3 pm.). The deal becomes even more irresistible when you notice that half the items are also on the $29.95 prix fixe dinner menu.
The restaurant is attractive, with plenty of warm wood and decorative glass, including wine bottles everywhere cuing you to order a prosecco or a nice cab. Cobalt blue water goblets look good against the granite tabletops. The floor-to-ceiling streetside glass doors were all open that afternoon, making the dining room and sidewalk café tables one big patio. To get away from the traffic sounds and exhaust, we sat inside toward the back. In beneficent urban forgiveness, the city pardoned this disrespect and provided us a steady, cooling breeze anyway.
An appetizer special sounded so appealing, I ordered that first. The 20 or so Maine mussels ($10) weren't in the usual wine sauce but rather ringed around a goodly serving of cannellini beans deliciously prepared with tomatoes and onions. When the two pieces of grilled bruschetta on top weren't enough to mop up the broth, more was brought upon request.
The Caesar salads we both chose instead of mixed field greens were just right. Plenty of dressing, but not much, the lettuce already tossed — though I would wish the croutons had been tossed with the Romaine. The plentiful Parmesan on top was shaved, not grated. Well done.
The 21 main dishes offered temptations for every appetite: Mushroom caps filled with lobster and shrimp stuffing; fried calamari served over baby greens. Chicken piccata or chicken balsalmico. Paper-thin slices of beef carpaccio over baby arugula and large caper berries. And so on.