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Capital Improvement

The Travis Cafe feels like Austin -- if Austin had good food

I don't really believe that one person could (or should) finish one of Travis Cafe's pizzas. Two, though, can polish one off handily. The gorgeous crust is thin and crisp, just the way I like it, and the six different versions share similar combinations of ultrafresh, picture-perfect vegetables. (Someone at the cafe really knows what he's doing when it comes to picking produce.) I tried the flagship of the line, the Downtown Works ($8.50), which is the equivalent of choosing "all of the above" on a multiple-choice quiz: Red and yellow Roma tomatoes and caramelized onions are piled high with shreds of roasted chicken and pepperoni and both fresh mozzarella and pepper Jack cheese, studded with slices of pickled jalapeno. Blinded by lust for more beautiful veggies, I temporarily forgot that I'm not a fan of the kitchen-sink approach to pizza making. The concatenation became cacophony: The pepper cheese fought with the pepperoni, and the evilly strong, tinny-tasting jalapenos didn't play well with any of the other fresh ingredients. The less-encyclopedic pizzas are both more sane and more successful, such as the Urban Treat ($8.25) -- pesto-basted roast chicken, caramelized onions, roasted red peppers, spinach and mushrooms -- or the unpretentious Mary Jo ($6.95) -- mild, crumbly, fresh feta cheese, spinach and tomatoes dressed with olive oil and mellow roasted garlic.

In the pasta division, our hands-down favorite was the El Diablo ($8.95), a suave devil built on a glorious terra cotta-colored ancho penne pasta. Its sauce sports a lightly sauteed garlicky blend of tomatoes, roasted corn and black beans, tossed with shreds of grilled chicken and the pasta, and finished off with a buttery drizzle of tequila and lime. Whew: Get a spoon to scoop every nibble from the bottom of the deep bowl. The pasta dishes are accompanied by a surprisingly seductive house salad. No grudging afterthought, this, but a tasteful mix of field greens, including a dramatic ruby-ribbed lettuce variant tossed in a light, sparkling tequila-lime vinaigrette.

We weren't quite as thrilled with the pasta Florentine ($7.50), but that was partly our own fault. The basic Florentine recipe is irreproachable, a simple jumble of plain penne pasta, softly sauteed spinach and both red and yellow tomatoes, sprinkled with olive oil and a little garlic. Where we went wrong was in adding the grilled shrimp, as the menu suggests. The shrimp, as it can sometimes do, overwhelmed the classically understated dish. Perhaps the other add-on, grilled chicken, would have worked better; personally, I'd love to see chewy circlets of Italian sausage as an option.

Desserts are temptingly displayed in a twirl-around glass case on the countertop, so you can't help but ogle them all through the meal. With so many choices and so little time -- chocolate truffle cake? chocolate mousse? -- our foursome finally came to a difficult consensus: one piece of double-chocolate cake, a baroque masterpiece I remember fondly from the Q Cafe. It's actually a quadruple threat to the beltline, as the moist, mountainous slice of chocolate cake is iced with fudgy chocolate, dusted with chocolate sprinkles then drizzled with chocolate sauce. Even with four forks we couldn't finish it off.

There are all sorts of more moderate and perhaps less embarrassing dessert options in the form of spiked coffees or dainty little liqueurs from the full-service bar. I strongly recommend the chocolate martini that bartender Jason made for my husband: a chilly, seductive slip of a drink blending dark and light Godiva chocolate liqueurs and Stoli vodka.

Silly me, I said I didn't want one; I don't like martinis. "You'd better get her one," Jason sagely advised. "If you don't, she's just going to drink all of yours." And indeed I did.

Travis Cafe, 208 Travis, (713) 223-4073.

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