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Bistro La Baia Philadelphia, Pa. Having just returned from traveling through Italy, I consider myself quite qualified to judge the perfect pasta. So I thought it would be appropriate to test out my practiced palate at Bistro La Baia, a small BYOB in Philadelphia’s Center City district, boasting traditional Italian seafood. While my recent voyages took me north of Rome into Tuscany and Florence, La Baia focuses its attention on the favorites from the south — in particular, seafood. Of course, the fact that “la baia” means “the bay” may have been the first hint. But even if you don’t know the native language, the wall-length mural of the Adriatic on one side of the dining room is the second hint that seafood lovers will find their fill on the menu. By the way, don’t feel bad if you’re not a native Italian. Neither is the owner. Adel George, who is known by his friends simply as “George,” is from Cairo, Egypt. But his chef, don’t fret, is all Italian. La Baia is located on the southwest corner of 17th and Lombard streets. But you better watch where you’re walking, because you could easily pass it by, thinking it’s just another Philadelphia row house. The doorway is shaded by trees, and there’s a bench on the side in case you have to wait for a table. And if you don’t make a reservation in advance, you might find yourself sitting on the bench, since the cozy dining room seats only about 40. My three friends and I went on a Saturday night in July. So, as is typical of Philadelphia in the summer, it wasn’t very crowded. And, luckily, it wasn’t too hot either, because the only air conditioning is a single unit over the front door. All the tables have candles, which also turned the heat up a few degrees. It was bright enough in the dining room that we could blow out the candle. As mentioned, La Baia is BYO. Much to my surprise — disappointment, actually — there is a $2 corkage fee for opening the bottle. This is the first time I’d ever seen such a charge, and, quite frankly, I found it a little offensive. We got started with the fresh, warm bread and olive oil — as always, a favorite. Some appetizer, or “prima,” choices included: smoked salmon with capers, onion and tomato ($7); octopus in a red sauce ($7), Caesar salad ($5); and arugula salad with parmesan cheese and apples in balsamic vinaigrette ($7). OFF TO A GOOD START We went with the mozzarella cheese with roasted peppers, tomato and basil ($7); mussels in a white sauce ($7) (the dish was also available in a spicy red sauce); marinated grilled calamari ($6); and baked mushroom and shrimp with garlic, parmesan cheese and herbs ($7). All the ingredients were fresh and well-prepared, but the clear winner was the grilled calamari. The consensus was that it was as good as we’d ever had. Also, the baked mushroom and shrimp, served casserole-style, was delicious and quite ample. The mussels were tender and well-cooked, but the broth was a little bland, in need of garlic and other spices. Used as a dipping sauce for the bread — usually a highlight when eating mussels — the broth was disappointing. Maybe the red sauce, which was described as “spicy,” would have been a better choice. PRIZED PASTA Moving on to the main course, or the “dopo,” the selection is vast and varied. Some choices include chicken breast rolled with spinach and mozzarella, topped with wild mushrooms in a demiglaze ($11); walnut-encrusted salmon filet in a light cream sauce with orange zest ($13); risotto with salmon in cognac sauce ($12); calamari stuffed with potatoes; fresh herbs in a light tomato sauce ($12); and veal scallopine with porcini mushroom sauce ($14). We seemed to lean heavily in favor of the pasta options, which is a direction I’d highly recommend. Each one was better than the last. Our selections included homemade ravioli stuffed with lobster in a light cognac sauce ($11); gnocchi with tomato-basil sauce ($8) (this also comes with pesto sauce for $9); and orecchiette (ear-shaped pasta) with shrimp and sun-dried tomatoes ($11), which was served in a red sauce. All the dishes were excellent. But I’ll make special note of the gnocchi, since so many restaurants can’t seem to get it right. It was light and not too chewy, and it stood up well to the competition in the chef’s homeland. My entree, quail stuffed with wild mushrooms, was a special of the day. The quail was served with mashed potatoes and matchstick vegetables and was well-presented. While I have no real complaints about the dish, I found myself eyeing my friends’ pasta dishes with envy. Should I return — which I intend to do — I’ll definitely try another pasta. For dessert, “dolci,” we ordered tiramisu and a flourless chocolate cake and four forks. Both desserts were good, and they went especially well with the cappuccino and espresso. But the tiramisu was a little “over-soaked,” making its texture more wet than we would have liked. Also available for dessert was ricotta cheesecake. The wait staff was attentive and friendly, and they let us take our time with each course. This was a nice change from other small BYOBs where you sometimes feel like food’s being thrown at you and you’re rushed out the door. The dining room is non-smoking, and reported as kid-friendly. But the restaurant’s small, and it was relatively quiet, so I’d be concerned about how other customers would have reacted to my 2-year-old on a Saturday night. Maybe they mean older kids. Restaurant: Bistro La Baia Location: 17th and Lombard Streets in Philadelphia, Pa. Reservations: 215-546-0496 (Reservations are recommended and required for parties of six or more.) Hours: Dinner is served Sunday through Thursday from 5 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m. Lunch is served noon to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday. Payment: No credit cards are accepted.

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