Gino Troia, owner of Café Troia in Towson, created Emporio Grano out of two Hampden row houses in 2010. (The original, tiny “Grano Pasta Bar” remains in business a few blocks west.) Even though the chef was formerly the head chef at the Italian embassy, Emporio Grano feels casual and intimate. There is a lounge and dining room on the main floor and two more dining rooms upstairs. The décor is “Italian farmhouse” with walls painted warm yellow and tables unadorned with fancy linens.

Emporio Grano’s objective is to provide “an array of unadulterated, traditional and authentic Italian food using the best ingredients available.” Indeed, many ingredients come from local farms that avoid additives. The menu offers antipasti options ($4-8), “to be shared” plates of meats and cheeses ($13-14), pasta dishes ($15-20), carne (meat) entrées ($14-40), and several side dishes (pasta, meatball, and veggies for $6). While rustic Italian bread served with garlic-infused organic olive oil is $2.50, a quarter liter of house wines is a bargain at $5. Our friendly, attentive waiter, Steven, got our attention with his recitation of the specials. (Or did we just enjoy staring at him? )

Marty, John, and our guest, JT, each started with the soup du jour – a seafood stew overflowing over with clams, oysters, shrimp, and chunks of fish – a delicious “mini cioppino.” We shared a basket of bread, which we used to mop our bowls clean!

For his entree, Marty decided on Linguine Santa Lucia, pasta with six very large, wonderful shrimp complemented by a delicious red pasta sauce. JT settled on the Orecchiette alla Barese; the Orecchiette pasta (Italian for “little ears”) was tossed with chunks of very tasty sausage and broccoli rabe in a garlic-infused olive oil. John chose the veggie lasagna special, which was cooked and served “single portion” style in a very deep ceramic bowl; it proved incredibly rich brimming with melted cheese, sautéed spinach, and small chunks of acorn squash. The attentive (and attractive) men on the staff kept our water glasses filled and even brought extra bread.

Despite feeling full, our waiter’s homemade nut cake recommendation tempted us into sharing a piece. The crunchy exterior with no frosting and a moist interior was an excellent decision that left John and Marty sparring over the crumbs! All in all, dinner at Emporio Grano left us with the certain glow that follows a particularly satisfying meal. Definitely a thumbs-up experience: we’ll come back to Emporio Grano!

DETAILS: Emporio Grano (Hampden) 3547 Chestnut Ave, 443-438-7521; Open for dinner 5-10pm (9pm on Sundays); full bar; vegetarian options; reservations for parties of 10 or more; granopastabar.com

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