REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PASTA
Only the rigors of founding a new nation could have kept infamous foodie Thomas Jefferson from doing what one out of every four restaurateurs in this country (and what seems like one out of every two in this city) feels compelled to do: open an Italian restaurant. In fact, Jefferson imported the first spaghetti-making machine to the United States in the late 1700s. But his prolific essays give no indication that he realized he was starting a trend that ultimately would turn us into a people dedicated to using the old noodle.
And using it, and using it. Until recently, the other wonderful foods of Italy have been largely ignored in this country in favor of easy sauces slapped atop piles of pasta. That's a wrong that Baci Ristorante tries to right with an expansive menu devoting as much space to carni and pizza as to paste. So far, so good. And this ambitious lineup is served impeccably in a picture-perfect dining room straight out of Metropolitan Home. The scenery is lovely both inside and out: A wall of floor-to-ceiling windows provides an unbeatable view of Denver and the mountains; the presentation of each dish is almost as breathtaking.
If only the whole place didn't seem so carefully calculated. "Baci" may be the Italian word for kiss, but this restaurant more closely resembles a society air-kiss than a good, soulful smooch.
Beneath the flawless veneer, Baci has weathered its share of troubles. Larry Ciancia built the restaurant in March with original partners Peter Wolfgang Schlicht (Compari's former matre d') and chef Ernesto Spinelli; both Spinelli and Schlicht are reportedly seeking their fortunes elsewhere, and Christian Schmidt, former wizard of Scanticon, has joined Ciancia as a part-owner. Schmidt, who recently wrote a cookbook called Viva la Mediterranean Cuisine, has turned his considerable talents toward revamping the menu.
The new version, while still replete with dishes whose names sound like lines from Cosi Fan Tutte ("Pizza con anitra sfumata e pesto pomodoro," the main character sings), is a tighter, more interesting roster. It relies less on an overblown appetizer list featuring such silly items as carpaccio done "a la Harry's Bar" and more on such tantalizing prospects as roulade croccante--phyllo layered with smoked duck, goat cheese, pine nuts and a basil sauce.
Sadly, Schmidt did hang on to the calamaretti fritti, a huge mound of fried calamari so bland we could have been eating little rings of fried breadcrumbs. On the original menu, which we sampled after Schmidt was already on board, this appetizer was priced at $5.25; now the ante has been upped to $6. (Schmidt probably costs more than Spinelli did.) We also sampled a pizza topped with pesto, sun-dried tomatoes and chicken ($8.75), a great combination even though the word "chicken" must have meant the kitchen was afraid to use too much, because there were exactly four strips for the whole ten-inch pie.
Although that particular version is no longer offered, Schmidt has greatly increased the number of pizzas coming out of Baci's kitchen. The emphasis may seem strange, given that wiping your greasy fingers on pristine cloth napkins is not what this place is all about, but Schmidt says he made the change because people seated in the bar area were clamoring for food. Most of the pizzas appear on what Baci calls its "bistro menu," Schmidt's answer to bar food, and they carry a hefty price--around $10 for a ten-inch pie.
And from there the prices only go up--although considering the complex preparations, they're pretty reasonable. But, while many restaurants used to throw in a salad so that the entree portion could be smaller, Baci follows the newer tradition of offering the salad as something special--both as an addition to your meal and to the check. A plate of mixed greens with goat cheese was worth the extra $3.25, though: Big hunks of cheese and a thin coating of garlicky vinaigrette covered the fresh, well-tossed greens. Since three of us split the salad, we felt it only fair to take on some extra food, namely a half order of the pappardelle ai porcini tartufati ($12.50 for a full order), an option the menu only offers to children under twelve but one our waitress suggested when we had a tough time choosing between two entrees. The pappardelle, like all of Baci's pasta, is made on the premises, and its wide, flat noodles were the perfect vehicle for the mushroom-laden sauce. According to renowned Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan, pappardelle's "larger surface accepts substantial sauces"--and this creamy concoction, whose truffle flavor was in heady proportion to the porcinis--certainly qualified. We also tried an order of fettucini Rossini ($15.50), whose sauce featured another marvelous melding, this time of gorgonzola, shrimp and sage heightened with a generous splash of cognac. The cheese was such an overwhelming component, however, that the sauce narrowly escaped becoming too much of a good thing.
The sauce on the walleye pike ($17.95) was just the opposite--a light citrus beurre blanc heavier on fruit than butter. I once had the pleasure of reeling in one of these fighters from a Chicago lake (after a whole summer of frustrated fishing); although walleye is rarely seen on menus, Schmidt says he's been able to get it a few times. And get it quickly, it seems: I could discern no difference between the fish I caught and ate twenty minutes later and the one I enjoyed at Baci. Further complementing this fresh, fresh fare was a square of polenta colored by red bell pepper and a smattering of julienned vegetables. The same sides came with the veal chop ($19.50), which the waitress called "a chop right out of The Flintstones." The chop was huge, but fatty inside. It had been lightly marinated with herbs and gently cooked, though, and its country flavors epitomized the kind of classic cooking that abounds in the Italian hills.
We went with more urbane selections when it came time for dessert. Baci's version of tiramisu ($4.95) was an understated little number unusually--and pleasantly--lacking in sweetness. It had the standard components--ladyfingers, mascarpone cheese and espresso--but the addition of Kahlua and a heavy dusting of bittersweet chocolate kept the dessert from being overbearing. (Schmidt has since changed the recipe to include Sambuca instead of Kahlua.) We also couldn't pass up the beguiling mascarpone cheesecake made with marshmallows ($5), a stump of seemingly whipped ingredients that also benefited from being not too sweet; Schmidt says he came up with the treat purely by accident.
Too bad that sense of adventure wasn't apparent anywhere else in the Baci experience. Eating at Baci is like scratching the surface of the Mona Lisa and finding it was done on a paint-by-numbers canvas. Thomas Jefferson would probably tell Schmidt and Ciancia it's time to declare independence from all this formality and lighten up a bit in the dining room.
Who knows? Something revolutionary might happen.
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