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This summer, when the quondam church on the lower reaches of Westheimer gave up its identity as Dream Merchant, clothier to the outrageous young, we were pleased to see the site revert to being a restaurant. As Gantry's (yes, as in Elmer), it had once been the home of Houston's best chicken-fried steak, and even in a later incarnation as an oyster bar the building made an intriguing dining space. But none of the previous tenants' decor could hold a candle to that of Affresco, the current resident.

From the high, vaulted ceiling ornamented with a Canaletto-like cloudscape to the Tuscan-ocher, faux-fresco walls and the polished hardwood floor, the ambiance is sunnily Mediterranean, and the single best reason to visit the restaurant. The menu, hard working as it is, is contempo-Italian, which means that no matter how well Affresco performs in the pizza, pasta, panini sweepstakes (and it performs very well indeed), foodies are bound to make snippy comparisons to the bills of fare at a host of other contempo-Italian places such as Cent'Anni, La Strada, La Griglia and even Crostini. The market for such enterprises has gotten awfully crowded of late.

Not that there's anything wrong with Affresco's kitchen. Quite the contrary. The rigatoni Affresco ($11.95), a wonderful amalgamation that includes smoked venison sausage sauteed with garlic, roma tomatoes, baby asparagus tops and onion, beat out such luminaries as Cafe Annie, Sierra Grill and Damian's Cucina Italiana to take home third place in Rice Epicurean Market's annual Ciao Chow Pasta Cook-off. While Affresco's other pasta dishes seem to me too meek, the wood-burning pizza oven attached to the outside of the building produces some of the best, most interestingly smoky and flavorful thin crust pizzas ($7.95 to $9.95) I've had in years. And the gamberoni Affresco ($7.50), a super-rich appetizer with a pair of jumbo shrimp resting on a bed of roasted-garlic polenta blanketed with seriously brandied cream sauce, is filling enough for an entree, especially if accompanied by the variety of greens and tart-sweet sun-dried tomato vinaigrette Verde salad ($3.95/ $5.50). The desserts, which of course include Italian cream cake, are suitably gargantuan and hang-the-guilt rich. But they're presented on the same sort of charger-size plates decorated with artful drizzles of chocolate or fruit puree that hold equally lavish sweets at other contempo-Italian cafes. The folks behind Affresco would do well to consider ways to make their menu and presentation as distinctive as their location.

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-- Joanne Harrison

Affresco, 1658 Westheimer, 523-3800.

 
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