Howard County can be the most perplexing of places when it comes to seeking out restaurants, especially in and near Columbia. Under the planned community's master plan, high-visibility locations are reserved mostly for large, high-volume chain restaurants. Locally owned dining establishments are likely to be in out-of-the-way shopping centers that serve individual villages but are seldom visited by anyone who doesn't live or work nearby.
Although Aida Bistro & Deli is a stone's throw from Interstate 95 and Route 175, its location in the Columbia Gateway business park is well hidden from travelers. But this suburban gem is well worth seeking out, for a quick meal on the way to Baltimore-Washington International Airport or a night of casual dining.
Deli on one side and bistro on the other, Aida is in the tradition of Italian village restaurants that have a bar and counter service in front and a more formal dining space in the rear. This family-owned and -operated business offers the creative menu and personalized service that restaurants in planned developments often lack.
Aida is the realization of a longtime dream of owners Joe and Mary Barbera. Though they talked about opening a restaurant while on their honeymoon 24 years ago, it took the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America to make the dream a reality.
Joe Barbera, then in sales and marketing for a high-tech company, was stranded in Canada for a week after the attacks, and he vowed to open a business that would allow him to stay closer to home and his family, which includes five children. Aida, opened 18 months ago with dishes that incorporate the names of his children, is the result.
The business park space has been transformed into a cozy expanse with a black-and-white tile floor, walls colored a deep gold, a velvet portiere and large banners decorating the walls. A bar, offering more than two dozen wines by the glass, is to one side, and bare-topped wooden tables are scattered about.
Despite its Italian allusions -- the restaurant is named for the owner's mother, whose Italian father named her after Verdi's opera -- the menu draws its inspirations from the whole Mediterranean region, and there are tweaks to even the most traditional Italian dishes.
One of the highlights during two visits was the Franco Bruschetta Supreme. The dish begins traditionally -- with rosemary foccacia (flatbread) -- but is hardly classic. The chopped tomato topping is paired with cilantro, rather than basil, and the dish also includes jumbo shrimp and artichoke hearts in a brilliant-tasting lemon garlic sauce. You'll need some of the excellent Italian bread, placed on the table with an assortment of olives as a greeting, to enjoy all the sauce.
Anthony's Calamari is classic Italian in every way, tender to the bite with a light crust and served with a tangy marinara sauce.
But some of the dishes seem just a bit off the mark. A recent special, roasted vegetable tart with gorgonzola, had all the right Italian ingredients -- eggplant, red peppers, tomato, zucchini -- but with a bit too much char on the eggplant and not quite enough roasted flavor for the ingredients to marry well.
One night, the large scallops in the Capesante Conca D'Oro were impeccably fresh but were not seared sufficiently to caramelize them, so they tasted bland rather than sweet. The spinach in the same dish was perfectly wilted, but the homemade linguine was undercooked to the point of tasting doughy. The pasta in the linguine with clams was similarly undercooked.
On another visit, however, the luncheon dish, whole-wheat linguine with blackened chicken, was stunningly good: the pasta perfectly cooked and almost nutty, the sun-dried tomatoes succulent and the strips of grilled chicken moist and flavorful. And while blueberry isn't my fruit of choice with pork loin, a luncheon mixed-grill dish featuring that combination was interesting and satisfying.
And there are at least two stars among the desserts. The chocolate and raspberry terrine is three slices of almost heaven, with chocolate so rich it is almost like eating the very best fudge. And the white chocolate crème brûlée is silken without being overwhelming.
But Aida isn't just about the food; it's about the total experience. The neighborhood feel among the patrons and management, the broad selection of carefully chosen wine and the welcoming ambience make Aida a restaurant worth venturing off the main thoroughfares to find.
Aida Bistro & Deli, 7185-A Gateway Dr., Columbia, 410-953-0500. Reservations recommended. Hours: lunch, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner,5-9 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, and 5-10 p.m., Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Dinner appetizers, $4.69 to $9.99; dinner entrees, $10.00 to $24.99; desserts, $4.99 to $7.99. Wheelchair accessible. www.aidabistro.com.