A Taste of Little Italy in the Heart of Pikesville

Written by Aliza Chlewicki on . Posted in Food/Dining

Billed as an “authentic Italian dinner experience,” new restaurant Sapori opened May 6 in the Greenspring Shopping Center in Pikesville, Maryland. Its menu, which is in Italian with English subtitles, includes antipasti (appetizers), zuppa (soups), insalata (salads), pizza, pasta, frutti di mare (seafood), contorni (side dishes), and dolcetti (desserts). Sapori’s walls are hung with pictures of Italian landscapes and architecture; and its tables, which seat up to 60 guests, are almost always at capacity.

“There was no other nice, dairy, sit-down restaurant in Baltimore so we decided to make a really nice, upscale environment with milchig [dairy] meals and table service,” said Lara Franks, who co-owns the restaurant with her husband Larry. “We wanted to create something special that clients would appreciate.”

A visit to the hot new venue shows that the Franks have done just that. The long, narrow restaurant with three rows of booths and tables is brimming with customers; servers are continually leaving the kitchen holding beautifully presented dishes of house-made pastas and pizzas; and the reservation line is ringing nearly off the hook.

“People are trying everything,” Franks said. “They are sitting and ordering many dishes and sharing at the table, passing around the food. It’s a fun way to enjoy a meal. We don’t see that in our other restaurants.”

Sapori’s success is not surprising, as the Franks are restauranteurs familiar in and with the Baltimore kosher food scene. They own three other restaurants also located in the Greenspring Shopping Center — Accents, “a family-style kosher grill,” which opened in 2005; Cocoaccinos, a “lively dairy cafe,” which opened in 2008; and Serengeti “an upscale steakhouse,” which opened in 2014. The four restaurants are under Star K kosher supervision.

Opening Sapori added a “two-tier level experience to the dairy side,” said Franks, much like opening Serengeti did for their meat establishments. Their other dairy restaurant, Cocoaccinos, only offers counter service, closed at 7 p.m. before Sapori opened (it now closes at 5 p.m.), and, by Franks's own admission, never had a “serious” dinner menu.

The Franks, who previously owned six restaurants in California, were not looking to open a fourth restaurant in Baltimore. However, the shopping center’s landlord, with whom they have a “really exceptional relationship,” informed them about an upcoming vacancy and asked whether they might be interested. “I don’t think this would have happened if it was not this same location,” Franks said.

Committed to the space, Franks visited non-kosher Italian restaurant chains to see what they were doing and what experience they provided their customers. “I decided to try a kosher version and see where it led us,” she said.

Franks described herself as a “purist” when it comes to menus and said she wanted a “classic Italian menu at night.” Larry, who has 30 years of experience in the restaurant industry, and Lara, whose background is marketing and communication, designed the menu. The most popular dishes since opening are the lasagna ($18); ravioli ($18); fish (flounder $29, bronzini $38, salmon $27, and red snapper $29); spiral vegetable salad ($18); kale salad ($18); skillet cookie ($14); and tiramisu ($9); said Franks. (The complete menu can be viewed on Sapori’s website: saporibaltimore.com).

Sapori is open primarily for dinner service (5-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday). However, the Franks plan to expand its current hours to include sit-down, table service for lunch, and to reconfigure Cocoaccinos to serve only breakfast and grab-and-go counter food. Franks said Sapori’s lunch menu would include 90 percent of Cocoaccinos’ current offerings and be a bit more casual than its dinner service; for example, high chairs, currently not available for dinner service due to space limitations, would be available for lunch service. Franks hopes to have the reconfiguration complete by mid-July.

The couple has no plans to open another restaurant; for now, four is enough. Franks said she “never would have expected or could have conceived five years ago” that she and her husband would own even four restaurants. “It is an inordinate amount of work,” she added.

For the moment, anyway, they are focused on developing Sapori and creating a special dairy dining experience for their customers. “You start out somewhere and clients will take you in directions they want to be served,” Franks said. “We will morph and become what our clients want us to become.”

Sapori is located at 2823 Smith Avenue in Pikesville, Maryland. Phone: 410-486-4264. http://saporibaltimore.com/.a

By Aliza Chlewicki