Focus is on the food at Chef Raffaelle

April 27, 2008|By EATON GOODE

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - You walk in the door and you wonder immediately "Am I going to wish I hadn't come here?"

You step into what was once an old store front on the corner of Maple Avenue and King Street, and you are in a long room. The length of the room is divided by a counter topped with lattice. Hidden behind the lattice is a working kitchen. There are three or four tables-for-two lined along one wall.

You wonder how your party of four is going to manage this.

Just then, a man appears at the back of the room, coming down a few steps you hadn't noticed earlier.

He invites you to the back room. So, you cross the long room, go up a couple steps and pass a little hallway where the bathrooms are located. Then you find yourself in a small back room where four tables-for-four are set up.


This is where you sit.

You wonder anew if this might turn out to be a disaster.

I'll cut to the chase - it doesn't.

If fact, it turns out to be a nice experience with more positive to say about it than negative.

Chef Raffaele is a small restaurant that draws a large crowd. On the night we were there, the place filled rapidly and people were still coming when we left.

There is little effort given to sprucing up the place. The building is old - you can tell by the deep window sills and by the way your chair leans a bit on the uneven floor. It looks like one of those early-20th-century buildings that had a store in the front and a home for the shopkeeper above.

There is a yellowish-gold paint on the walls and a sort of seafoam green paint on the trim. In the back room, lattice has been wired to the ceiling and plastic grapes and vines drape from it. The carpet looks old and the tables and chairs are not completely stable.

Both dining rooms are small and it is easy to overhear conversations around you. I don't like that when I'm dining. I like a little privacy so I can converse with my dining companions on whatever topics come up. And, I don't want to hear other diners' conversations.

But there is something charming about this tiny restaurant. It doesn't pretend to be what it isn't and, as we discovered during the course of our visit there, the focus at Chef Raffaele is on the food.

I began my dining experience at Chef Raffaele by ordering a glass of the house chardonnay for $5.50. I won't do that again. It was not terrible, but it also was not that great. I didn't ask what label they were serving. I just made a mental note not to have the house wine there in the future.

We were served a warm Italian bread with olive oil. Delicious. And, if you've read any of my previous reviews, you will know that I know bread. If the bread served is not up to standard - or worst yet, no bread is served - my entire meal could be ruined. If you can't get the bread right, what hope is there for the rest of the meal?

For appetizers, I ordered vellutada d'aragosta, a lobster bisque for $6.95. My dining companion ordered portobella con scamorza, a grilled portobella mushroom with smoked cheese and balsamic reduction at a cost of $6.50.

The mushroom was delicious. The smoked cheese - a mozzarella-like cheese called scamorza - was melted over the top. Combining the flavors of the mushroom, the cheese and the balsamic reduction was wonderful.

The lobster bisque earned an OK rating, but not much more. It seemed a bit thin to me and did not make me wish I could lick the bowl.

For an entre, my dining companion ordered the galletto al matone, a grilled Cornish hen marinated with herbs and served with a rosemary and lemon sauce. The cost was $14.95, and it was worth every penny.

The hen was large, baked or roasted to perfection - a flavorful treat. Tender and juicy, it is definitely a menu item that earned high praise.

I ordered one of the specials - trenette con gamberi - linguine with asparagus, sun dried tomatoes, shrimp, shallots and mussels. I'm not a mussels fan so I asked them to leave those out of my dish. The special was $18.

When it arrived, I could see plenty of asparagus, sun dried tomatoes and shrimp. But I was concerned the dish would be dry. My concern was unfounded. Tossed in some type of oil and seasoned well, this dish was a treat to the palate.

There was a smokiness to the dish I couldn't quite identify. The linguine was a perfect al dente and the shrimp were large and tender.

I really enjoyed this dish and would order it again without hesitation. There is a trenette con gamberi on the menu without the mussels, so you can get it any time.

We skipped dessert on this night because we were simply too full to taste another thing.

Our bill was $54.75 without the tip.

A stop at Chef Raffaele is not an experience in fine dining and, like me, you might not be impressed with everything on the menu.

But I'm confident you will find something tasty. This is a restaurant that understands the flavors of Italian cooking and that makes it worth trying.

Chef Raffaelle

(out of 5)

Food: 4 stars

Value: 4 stars

Service: 3 stars

Ambience: 3 stars

Address: 301 W. King St., Martinsburg, W.Va.

Hours: Lunch is available from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner is served from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Phone: 304-260-9099

Style: Italian

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