Diner's Notebook

I have been much preoccupied with restaurant slippage recently, so it gladdens me to encounter a place that has managed to improve itself significantly. Veneto, that charmingly kitschy trattoria off T.C. Jester on the near northwest side, has replaced its overly schmoozy and strutting chef with a far more involved young man who stays in the kitchen, getting things right.

Silvio di Gennaro, who hails from the Italian coastal town of Bari and once cooked at Montesano, has made the food far more consistent -- particularly in the formerly dismal seafood area. The vibrant white clam sauce that was Veneto's chief attraction remains in fine form, but now there's irreproachably fresh red snapper, precisely sauteed and bearing a lively, light Checca sauce involving tomato, black olives, basil and olive oil. With a side of spaghetti boldly tossed in garlic and oil, it qualifies as a Mediterranean vacation in miniature.

Gamberi Arina arrive in good shape, too: the shrimp firm and iodine-free, their buttery garlic-and-lemon sauce more attuned to power than grace. Minestrone has a homemade, garden quality to it, and tomatoes marinated with basil and feta have that late-summer lushness that tomatoes so often lack. Connoisseurs of the retro (and of Italian cold cuts) will find the antipasto platter as gratifyingly old-fashioned as ever, loaded with high-quality mortadella, salami, prosciutto and provolone. Now if only they'd throw in a few more of those pickled vegetables.

Downsides? A vastly shrunken wine list. Mealy, bland cheese ravioli of the sort that can be found in dozens of other restaurants. Marinara-sauced spaghetti that seems mismatched to the scampi. Italian bread that doesn't measure up to Veneto's homemade rolls of yore.

But the bottom line is that dining at this sweetly off-the-wall spot is no longer such an iffy experience. Those who have maxed out on Houton's slick and trendy Italian joints -- and anyone with a taste for the eccentric -- should check it out.

-- Alison Cook

Veneto, 1971 T.C. Jester, 802-9771.

Red snapper alla Checca $15.95;
minestrone $2.65;
linguini with white clam sauce, $9.95.


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