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Too Much Italian?

Baci goes up against Houston's Italian glut -- and wins

News of another upscale Italian restaurant opening in town fills me with the same enthusiasm I feel for tax hikes and Mattress Mac commercials. How many, I always wonder, can the human brain absorb? Can I face another faux fresco?

So I was surprised to find my eyes de-glazing at Baci, the stagy new Tuscan venture in the ever-more-Disneylike Rice University shopping village. Venison ragu, grilled sweetbread salad, quince tart ... maybe boredom wasn't on the menu after all. And even if the vaults and faded frescoes of Baci's Cellar Moderne decor had the discomforting familiarity of a recurrent dream, I had to love a place that would station a mammoth panful of oozy roasted garlic bulbs right at the entrance. A couple of meals later, I had to admit that while the ambitious Baci is not as grand as it wants to be, already the Houston outpost of this Seattle- and Denver-rooted mini-chain is one of the city's better Italian restaurants.

The disappointment here is the ballyhooed merende bar, an 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. antipasto extravaganza comprising some 40 different dishes. Arrayed on ice in a semicircular span that greets you as you walk in, these cold dishes just don't measure up to the restaurant's cooked-to-order food. Even the most passionate grazer I know was unmoved by the spread: leery of its hefty, moribund-looking fritattas and savory tortes; skeptical of all that tuna fish in various salads and stuffings; turned off by the cold, unhealthy cast conferred on the food by its nighttime backlighting. Neither one of us spotted a single item we absolutely had to have; back at our table, we reminisced mournfully about how vivid and appealing everything on the original Anthony's antipasto table used to look -- and taste.

Daylight is kinder to Baci's merende dishes, but their flavors are neither as big nor as persuasive as they might be. Grilled shrimp perched on polenta cakes and bathed in a rosy cream were pretty but surprisingly pallid-tasting one noon. The marinated tomatoes that looked so lush turned out to be interesting mostly by virtue of their roasted, partially browned skins. Whole peppers brimmed with gorgeously saffron-hued risotto that proved disconcertingly chewy. (Firm rice is one thing; al dente rice is another.) Only the long, mysterious cabbage rolls on a four-for-eight-bucks plate fulfilled their promise, thanks to a tart, spicy, chopped-veal stuffing that had genuine strut.

Actually, the best of show on the table were the roasted garlic bulbs thrown in for free: nutty and seductive and mellow, they functioned as a sort of vastly superior butter when smooshed onto sturdy slices of Magnus Hansson's superlative Tuscan bread. Add a few potent olives and a thick glass tumbler of house wine, and you have the essentials of civilization.

Diners who are not distracted by the merende selections will find plenty of compelling things to eat. There's a bright, exhilarating lemon factor at work here that gives a number of dishes real sparkle -- a self-possessed spinach salad, for instance, its tartness pointed up by salty Parmesan shavings and a few dabs of rich, almost sweet gorgonzola. Lemon brings up the flavors in an equally fine dish of briefly sauteed spinach laced with onion, lemon and pine nuts, a dish so engaging I could eat it for breakfast.

It's daring to offer a salad of grilled sweetbreads and arugula in a conservative market such as Houston, but Baci brings it off in a way that could make converts. The sweetbreads -- luxurious, satiny, perfectly striped from the grill -- find their match in pleasantly bitter greens freshened with lots of lemon and garlic, and laced with big shards of high-caliber Parmesan that kick in at the end. Lemon even manages to render the newly obligatory roasted-chicken plate interesting here. The bird emerges plump and moist and scented with rosemary, its skin glazed brown by a lemon-and-olive-oil baste. And its presentation -- on a slab of grilled, marinated bread showered with arugula leaves and a lemon-wine sauce -- is a particularly happy one.

Florentine-born executive chef Marco Casas Beaux seems to have an affinity for tart flavors, which makes even a smoke-tinged appetizer of grilled radicchio swathed in prosciutto seem to vibrate in its balsamic vinaigrette. He also has a way with meats done in Baci's wood-burning oven (they brag that they don't even use gas to light the thing), from the chicken to unswervingly simple lamb chops, cut from the rack and brought forth in a wide bowl jumbled with garlicky roasted potatoes.

There's good roasted pork loin, too, compromised only by the kitchen's penchant to cook it a little too long, but big on flavor with its sweet, smoky onion sauce and a profusion of well-browned, rosemary scented potatoes. Baci's version of osso buco has its rewards: meltingly tender veal shank acquires depth from a richly winy Brunello sauce and lift from gremolata, that magic confetti of lemon zest, parsley and garlic. Only its creamy base of risotto, all hard, chewy edges, takes away from the effect.

I am happy to report that Baci serves one simple, striking pasta dish that puts all the overdone, kitchen-sink pastas in town to shame. Taglierini alla fornaia practically swaggers with garlic, red pepper and olive oil; parsley and browned bread crumb lend their own, subtler layers of interest. This one goes directly into my own personal Houston Pasta Hall of Fame. Pappardelle al venado, alas, does not: the tiny bow ties my companion found delicate I found merely overcooked, and a ragu sauce that was lively with red pepper had as its main attraction large chunks of oversimmered, faintly mealy venison. Needs work.

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