Being a ristorante on Federal Hill is a lot like being just another olive tree in the grove. The challenge is to distinguish yourself so that people will keep coming back, will pick you. Since Zooma has been a fixture on at Atwells Avenue’s Italian restaurant row for nearly five years, it looks like they’re doing something right.
The first impression streetside is attractive. Flower boxes run the length of the gray-and-violet façade, a homey presence. In warm and sunny weather, a line of tables for two pops up alongside the flowers. The lettering of the name — the two Os in Zooma linked like a magic trick — is catchy, maybe going for hip. Inside, the prominent bar is slick, our attention pulled by large backlit orange Ls. That’s a good idea, seeing as the place likes to add “Bar-Ristorante,” in that order, after its name. (The extensive list of wines also grabs attention, with many offered by the glass, adding enoteca to its description.)
We wanted something quieter than the bar area, so we requested seating in back. Informality is an option here too, with stools along a counter overlooking the open kitchen. But it was a table for us, the tablecloth not topped with glass or paper, bistro style. The background music was from the Sinatra channel on Sirius, so all that was missing was can-dlelight.
Looking over the seasonally changing menu, we dabbed at olive oil poured into plates for us — no need to turn down butter and request some. Unusually, the Italian bread was better then the focaccia, which was spongy and too salty. Pleasantly, we didn’t have to spring for an $8 bottle of San Pellegrino, because their tap water was very well-filtered.
Most of the appetizers are $10 and $11 and run the traditional gamut: mussels in white wine sauce, calamari, both beef and tuna carpaccios. An unusual offering was lightly breaded and pan-fried risotto and montaggio cheese, marinara on the side — take that, mozzarella sticks. The saute di calamari sounded different enough for us to try, so we did and were mostly pleased. Both the rings and tentacles were as tender as I’ve ever had, accompanied by cherry tomatoes and roasted garlic and tossed with a mild, white balsamic vinegar. Pan-fried rather than deep-fried, they were greasier than desirable, though. For starters, there is also pasta e fagioli, the traditional pasta and white bean soup, and broc-coli and potato soup topped with smoked mozzarella (both $8); and choice of four salads.
Zooma’s executive chef Jeff Burgess is especially proud of their primi piatti, 19 pasta courses, more than twice the number of the entrées on the menu. Fifteen are kitchen-made. There are four kinds of ravioli alone, from chevre-filled in brown butter, to a lobster and mascarpone filling with a vermouth-finished sauce. We had the day’s pasta spe-cial, whole-wheat tagliatelle with a crimini mushroom, cherry tomato, and artichoke heart sauté ($14). I chose it because of the whole-wheat challenge — such pasta attempts can be more healthful than tasty, but this was quite good, not at all grainy.