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Light Dining
Since I believe it is uncivilized to eat dinner while it is still light outside, the appeal of early-bird specials (or daylight-saving time, for that matter) has always eluded me. After trying Sfuzzi's "Summer Sunset Dining" deal -- which offers three courses for $9.95, provided you eat them between the hours of 4 and 7 p.m. -- I'm afraid I remain unconverted.

Not that this is not a pretty decent bargain; it's just that the food's not compelling enough to make me reset my internal clock. I might feel differently had the pasta course that's meant to be the main event been more persuasive. Simple spaghetti puttanesca showed promise with its capers, winy olives and pungent ribbons of basil; but the toss of fresh tomato and garlic that should have held it all together suffered from an excess of olive oil. And where was the red-pepper burn that the menu had hinted at?

More perplexing still was smoked chicken ravioli that turned out to be two outsize, cheese-stuffed orbs (humongous ravioli being the very last word these days) with a sort of smoky chicken-and-vegetable soup poured over the top. Not bad, but neither element seemed to have much to do with the other.

As an index to the current state of Sfuzzi's pasta, both these dishes were a bit worrisome. Not so the salads that started the meal: a straightforward Insalata Sfuzzi of romaine and radicchio in a brisk, red-onion-spiked vinaigrette; the obligatory Caesar of crisp romaine in a tart, garlicky cream. There was spongy, spicy bread to go along, and an unusually lively herbed olive oil in which to sop it.

The desserts on the abridged sunset list (which offers four to six choices in each category, including pizzas) send you home on a high note. Ricotta cheesecake is possessed of a fine, light texture that beats the hell out of your basic cream-cheese version. And cappuccino pie is one of those surprises that secretly thrills, while inducing plenty of guilt: you're really not supposed to like something as infantile as an ice-cream pie, but when the coffee flavor and chocolate-cookie crust are this intense, and this far short of sweet, an exception begs to be made.

Somehow, with Sfuzzi's sepia-toned dining room still underpopulated, with illumination from skylightsand Italian techno lamps rendering its faux frescoes even faux-er, the cappuccino pie tastes right -- even at the unsettling hour of 6:30 p.m. Suddenly the dividend of dining at Sfuzzi before nightfall in August dawns: the sometimes clamorous, Bellini-fueled bar scene is positively muted, even desultory. You can hear yourself think, which dulls the pain of having to pay $4.95 for a quart bottle of San Pellegrino water. I want a discount; after all, it's not even dark yet.

-- Alison Cook

Sfuzzi, 1800 Post Oak Boulevard (Saks Pavilion), 622-9600.

Three-course Summer Sunset Dining special, $9.95.

 
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