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Baronessa, Chef Antonia Cenere's Italian in Gude Plaza on East Gude Drive in North Rockville

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A relative from across the river has planned a father's day outing at this restaurant in Rockville...it doesn't appear to be new, yet I've never heard of it before. Anyone ever been and have any comments? Baronessa

It's a casual, pleasant neighborhood place with gentle prices and a fairly ambitious menu. The cook turned out a lovely Osso Buco and Chicken Marsala for us, and the accompanying pasta was perfectly al dente. The wine by the glass list is in serious need of an upgrade, but that will hopefully come soon. It's cheerful, the service is competent and the owner is on the floor.

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Saturday, 7:30pm. After a long kid-centric day (soccer games, museums, shopping, etc.), neither of us feels like cooking.

"Where do you feel like going?"

"I don't know, what are you in the mood for?"

"How about Chinese?"

"I took the kids to Chinatown for lunch."

"How about Italian?"

"OK, I'll make some calls."

After finding waits of at least 30-60 minutes at our usual Rockville/Potomac Italian haunts (Il Pizzico, Mama Lucia, Amici Miei), we decide to try this place. Mostly because it's 10 minutes away, and we have a 20% coupon. The online website seems decent (and updated), and there's something everyone seems in the mood for.

We arrive to a half-empty dining room, and make eye contact with every employee that we can see. Still, we're left at the host stand for 5 minutes before a teenage kid (owner's son?) comes to take us to a table. Without uttering a word.

We sit at a table with only 2 place settings for another 5 minutes, before I ask a busboy for some menus. It's at least another 5 minutes before a waiter skims by the table with a quick "...back in a minute." Five minutes later, he's there to take the order. In the 20 minutes since we've come in, two other tables have sat down, gotten menus, bread and drinks, and salads.

"I saw on the website that you have a childrens menu."

Blank stare. Ten seconds of dead air. "Should I go find you one?"

"Yes, that's why I asked for it." OK, I wanted to say that, but I think I just said "Yes".

After placing the order (Penne with butter for the 6-year old, Sausage pizza for the 9-year-old, Cioppino for me, and Veal Picatta for the wife), we wait another few minutes, and drinks and bread finally arrive. The bread is fine - not packaged, and good enough for suburban strip-mall Italian. Olive oil on the table, so that's the first plus of the evening.

Salads (free with entrees) arrive. The Caesar dressing is reasonably zippy with garlic and anchovies, but the croutons are from a box. Ugh.

When the entrees arrive, I'm a bit perplexed. Everyone else's seems fine, but the Cioppino has morphed into Seafood Marinara. Now, I'm fine with Seafood Marinara, and had I seen that on the menu, I might have ordered that. But I pretty much expected Cioppino to be, well, Cioppino, which I've always seen as a seafood stew with a tomato based broth. This is a bed of spaghetti, with seafood and marinara sauce. I check to see if I've been given the right thing, and they confirm that this is it. The seafood is reasonably plentiful, and decent quality, and the tomato sauce is nicely flavorful. But it's not what I expected, and pretty much the crown of a less-than-spectacular meal. The kids' entrees are inoffensive, but my wife's Picatta is so heavy with the capers that there's no other taste on the plate. And at almost $20, it's a crime for 3 small pieces.

Service never improves. We need to ask repeatedly for drink refills. Nobody ever checks to see if the food is ok after my initial query. Plates are left empty on the table for 10 minutes, when we flag down someone to wrap up the kids leftovers. We decline dessert and get the check.

I left a bit less than 15% on the post-discount, pre-tax total. They can put me on the tipping wall of shame, because I can't imagine going back. I'd rather wait 30 minutes at Mama Lucia.

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After winding my freshly tuned car through the backroads of northern Montgomery County, I cut over on Route 28, stopping in for a late lunch at Baronessa.

There was only one other diner in the restaurant, who ordered the Melanzane alla Parmigiana, and that sounded good to me. The gentleman who took my order asked me if I wanted penne or linguini as my side dish. "Are either of them homemade?" I asked. "Nah," he shook his head. "Just the lasagna and cannelloni."

So I went ahead and changed my order to a lunch special of Lasagna ($9.95), tacked on a Caesar Salad ($2.00), and a Diet Coke ($2.00).

There were nice touches in this suburban Italian restaurant with it's real tablecloths and paper napkins. Thoughtful displays of artwork on the wall - frescos by Edna Searles signed and dated February, 2005 which probably make the restaurant itself two months older than donrockwell.com. A real, honest-to-goodness Southern Italian cook, Antonia Cenere (perhaps "The Baronessa" herself), proudly featured on the restaurant's website. I couldn't help but feel a kinship with this place, a small, family-owned business toiling for 7.5 years.

At a $2 supplement, the Caesar salad is a no-brainer addition to the lunch specials. It used romaine leaves that were evenly cut, and more importantly, properly dressed - there was no "drizzling" of Caesar dressing on this; it was made to order, and mixed in a bowl. There were no anchovies, but the lettuce and dressing were in correct proportion, and the salad was a nice way to start the lunch. Even the humble Diet Coke was served in a glass glass, with the top half of the paper left on the straw, and a lemon wedge placed on the side.

The generous wedge of lasagna took a fairly long time to arrive (all the more reason to enjoy a salad), and that's because it was heated to order in an oven, with the elliptical baking dish oven-hot to the touch. Baronessa is closed on Mondays, and since this was Tuesday lunch, I wasn't expecting any culinary miracles. The lasagna was the gooey, meaty, cheesy type, with an abundance of ricotta, and what might have been a slice of provolone melted on top. It tended towards the bland, and could have used something to awaken it, even button mushrooms, or maybe some onion; I added a few shakes of salt, and went through exactly one slice of sub-par, grocery-store quality, Italian bread (served with foil-wrapped pats of real butter), to swipe up the sauce. I took the second half of the dish home, and my son cheerfully had it at 6:15 this morning, in the car, on the way to school, along with a Susan G. Komen Georgetown Cupcake left over from two nights ago. The poor lad often has his dad's leftovers on Thursday mornings, but generally draws the line when I offer him cold Thai food.

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