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Italian wine bar serves up soberingly delicious treats

Enoteca Umberto succeeds from antipasto to freselle, daring patrons to find room for chocolate figs

Stepping off the bustling streets of Federal Hill and into the cozy space of Enoteca Umberto is akin to visiting an Italian grandmother just before dinner time. The back half of the restaurant is itself a partially open kitchen — one that tempts the taste buds of diners sitting at the four tables in the front. Taking in aromas as rich and authentic as if prepared fresh from a garden out back, diners will likely find their mouths watering.

The restaurant is a tight squeeze, but everything inside it contributes to an atmosphere of familiarity. Diners rest their coats on special shelves under the tables to free up room for food, and Umberto Bellini, the owner and sole waiter of the enterprise, recites specials to multiple tables at once. The separation between them is barely enough for him to navigate his balancing act of creamy pasta dishes, antipasto platters and trays topped with wine-filled glasses.

Like the restaurant, the portion sizes are small. This is characteristic of an enoteca — or wine bar — and in fact, the wine and cocktail selection is as expansive as the food menu. But Bellini, with his southern Italian lilt, describes with fervor each of the dishes prepared by Lia Labbadia, the restaurant chef to whom he is engaged.

The spinach and goat cheese salad, dressed with traditional southern Italian vinaigrette, was served with “some beautiful fresh pear, truly delicious,” Bellini said, kissing his fingers and spreading them out with a flourish. The salad was light, scrumptious and a perfect precursor to the La Collina antipasto, comprised of  an array of “salumi” — prosciutto, salami, sopresada —  and traditional Sicilian formaggi, or cheese. Olives, dried figs and crostini accompany these salty selections, and a honey drizzle across the cheese reminds patrons that they are enjoying the flavors of southern Italy.

A variety of bruschette are offered, arriving at the table in groups of three on a plate. The timeless, traditional tomato was delicious as expected, and the ricotta and artichoke bruschette provide interesting variations on this culinary standard.

Panini and Freselle — plate-size, toasted slices of bread with various toppings — also characterize the menu’s more substantial offerings.  The pasta dishes vary each night and are offered as specials.

The desserts are heavy with flavor, leaving feelings of satisfaction after a meal that can easily turn into an Italian antipasto buffet. For a stomach not yet stuffed with taralli — crunchy cracker-like rings of baked dough — panettone will surely fill the last crevices. And the fichi al ciocolatto, or chocolate-dipped figs, sound so exotic, and are so small, that they’re impossible to not order.

What the enoteca may lack in size, it makes up for in heart. While its dishes are small, an army of them waits to satiate and surprise with rich, authentic flavors. And though the restaurant may not actually be your grandmother’s kitchen, a few glasses of wine later, you’ll feel right at home.


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