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MOUTHING OFF

Dining, Italian-style: My discovery of Geppetto's (see review this issue) helped fill the hollow left behind when a real class-act Italian restaurant, O Sole Mio, closed earlier this year. A group of Ethiopian restaurateurs has taken over the building at 5501 East Colfax Avenue. Now called Axum, the name of Denver's sister city in Ethiopia, the restaurant dishes out traditional Ethiopian fare. No word on what's happened to O Sole Mio owners Mario and Tony Mazzei, who I thought had finally managed to overcome the departure two years ago of chef Peter St. John. St. John moved on to found his own venture, Tango, which now is also defunct; St. John himself moved to Los Angeles a few months ago. Ciao.

Chain restaurants have gotten such a bad rap that a few try to downplay their membership in the corporate club. The public usually isn't fooled--truth (and taste) will out--but some chains are better at disguising their cookie-cutter setups than others. One such success story is Piatti, which earlier this year took up residence at 190 St. Paul Street in a building that has housed a succession of failures, most recently the Ore House. It could have been a garbage dump before and you'd never know it, though, so extensively has Piatti renovated the place.

There are nine Piattis in California, and the Denver dining room also has the feel of an upscale Cal-Ital pizza parlor, with its slick packaging soothed by creamy tones and colorful funky paintings. The other dead giveaway that a higher power pushes the buttons at Piatti: a thoroughly trained waitstaff that manages to be cheerful and efficient without slipping into fakeness or condescension. In fact, if the service were guaranteed to be this good, I'd cheer if all restaurants joined the chain gang. Pretty is as Piatti does.

Unfortunately, the food isn't as consistent as the service. During my recent visit Piatti served up several exceptional dishes but also a few duds that were no better than what I could get at an Olive Garden--and at a lower price at that. The pasta e fagioli ($4.25) was thin and watery, although it did have a nice salty smokiness. And the calamari fritti ($6.95), described as "lightly floured" on the menu, came out looking like the aftermath of a pillow fight, all big clumps of moist flour between naked pieces of squid. The dipping aioli, however, was a textbook emulsion, smooth and garlicky (but not too) and slightly spicy.

The entrees were a mixed blessing, too. The saltimbocca alla Romana ($16.95) was a well-priced melding of veal scallopine and tart fresh lemon, kept warm under a blanket of prosciutto and mozzarella. Sage perfume hit the air every time a fork pressed into this masterpiece, and the preserved lemon on the side was something I haven't seen since my great-grandmother died and took canning with her. On the other hand, an order of fettuccine alla Bolognese ($9.95) was covered with a meat sauce so thick I could have laid a few bricks with it; the shaved parmesan was a welcome addition, because it undercut the sauce's rich, cloying acidity.

Since Piatti has more on the ball than the average chain, I assume that the kitchen will even out those quality problems. And in the meantime, what about lowering a few wine prices?

 
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