If Scoozi, the new contemporary Italian restaurant in the Village of Cross Keys, doesn't rise to the level of destination dining, it does provide Baltimore diners a pleasant alternative.
The restaurant opened in December in the space at the Radisson Hotel at Cross Keys formerly occupied by the Village Roost, a restaurant best known for its power breakfasts back in the day when that term was still in vogue. We're talking the 1980s. In more recent decades, the Village Roost fell out of fashion, and it wasn't a big surprise when the hotel closed it as part of a larger remodeling and cooked up this new concept to take its place.
Scoozi feels like just the right idea. It's a very approachable restaurant. You can enter through the hotel's main lobby — where there's a friendly, busy little bar at which to perch if you're waiting for friends — or directly from the courtyard. The dining rooms, which are pretty but not fancy, can't quite shake off the impersonal blandness we've come to associate with hotel restaurants. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be a relief to dine in a neutral space, where the decor isn't constantly trying to tell you something.
I'd make a similar defense of Scoozi's smartly edited menu, a straightforward listing of pastas, personal-size pizzas, salads, soups and a half-dozen smartly chosen entrees, the kinds of things like steak frites, chicken Milanese and crab cakes that diners naturally gravitate to and that small kitchens can do well.
Scoozi knows, too, that hungry diners still love to have a bread basket brought to the table when they're mulling over the menu. It's more than a nice gesture when the bread turns out to be squares of warm, toasty focaccia.
But it was the service at Scoozi that made the nicest impression. The staff working when we dined there, who we learned are veterans from the Roost, just plain seem to love making diners happy. Our waiter told us what menu items most merited our attention, with useful descriptions and information that made us trust him. And that he managed to do so tactfully, without disparaging those he didn't think we'd like, makes him a prince among waiters.
Yes, our waiter said, sharing one pizza — Scoozi makes their pizza dough in house — as an appetizer is a great idea. The Chianti-braised short ribs entree? Get them, he told us; it's the chef's pride and joy.
We had the Kennet Square pizza, which was topped with wild mushrooms, caramelized onions and ricotta cream seasoned with garlic and herbs and scented with white truffle oil. The thin crust was not overly charred or too crispy, and the toppings tasted like real, fresh food instead of packaged products. An appetizer of fried calamari had a similar homemade appeal. Served, prettily, with swirls of tomato sauce and a garlic-caper aioli, the squid were fried to a pleasant crunchiness.
The standout entree, in addition to the tender and flavorful short ribs, was the steak frites, slices of lean and well-seasoned New York strip. A confidently prepared stuffed bone-in pork chop needed some more zest in its prosciutto and fontina stuffing. Only the chicken Milanese was ultimately disappointing. Although we enjoyed the fresh garnish of arugula and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, the Parmesan-flavored cornmeal breading was distractingly thick.
Scoozi has a few dining innovations of note.
Menus are presented on individual computer tablets, with courses listed on separate pages. I found it easy swiping from page to page, and I liked how when I clicked on a menu item it called up both a photograph and a list of ingredients. But I wondered how well the tablets were being received by tech-phobic diners. Not very well, our waiter told us, and Scoozi does provide a printed menu on request.
The friendly wine list, in addition to a full bar, offers many items not only by the glass but by the "taste" and by the "quartino," a midsize option between the glass and the bottle.
Scoozi assumes that if you want dessert, it will be something simple, like a dish of ice cream or a root beer float. We shared, and enjoyed, a molten chocolate cake with a warm caramel sauce.
On our way out of Scoozi, we overheard two women in Cross Keys' courtyard wondering whether Scoozi was a good place to have dinner. "Go in," we told them. "They'll take care of you."
Scoozi is not the kind of restaurant you'd make long-range plans for, but it's a fine option for one of those midweek nights when nobody feels like cooking.
Rating: 2 stars
Where: 5100 Falls Road, Cross Keys
Contact: 410-435-3316, facebook.com/ScooziCrossKeys
Open: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily
Prices: Appetizers: $8-$13; entrees: $17-$28
Food: Contemporary Italian cuisine
Service: Friendly and informed
Parking/accessibility: Ample parking on the lots of the Village of Cross Keys.
Children: There is no children's menu.
Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is fine throughout the restaurant. There are several televisions at the bar, which is in the hotel lobby.
[Star key: Superlative: 5; Excellent: 4; Very Good: 3; Good: 2; Promising: 1]