Veni, Vidi Veneto

"The chef is from Venice!" Being a Houstonian, and therefore inclined to optimism and a wistful respect for Things European, I have been propelled onto the freeways by such tantalizing phrases more often than I care to admit. Dashed hopes generally ensue. Still, I cling to the fantasy that great, authentic meals lie just ahead, maybe at an out-of-the-way spot like Veneto on T.C. Jester in the northwestern quadrant of the Heights, where the chef really is from Venice.

Not that Marco Lucano's menu holds any surprises. Or that his cooking will bowl you over. Indeed, chef Marco, who directed the kitchen at the late Torcello's during its earliest phase, tends to oversalt. He needs to find a new seafood supplier. He ought to spend more time at the stove, less time strutting and schmoozing out front. But once I had surrendered the wild notion that Veneto would turn out to be the trattoria of my dreams, I was free to appreciate the place for what it was: a sweetly kitschy, engagingly corny spot with killer white clam sauce and several other good specialties, set down in a neighborhood that can really use it.

"San Pellegrino in the Heights!" goggled my native guide as she scanned the menu. "And look -- tiramisu." To the strains of concertina Muzak that blended the "Beer Barrel Polka" and "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" into a weird aural brew, we inventoried our ingenuous surroundings. Burbling fountain. Curvaceous old inlaid chests. Earnest murals of Venice. Yard upon yard of lace curtains twined in plastic ivy. Beefy diners clad in extra-large T-shirts and shag haircuts. "We're not in West U anymore," observed my friend with a certain Heightsian satisfaction -- an impression sealed by our Neapolitan waiter, a relentless vaudevillian who approached us bellowing, "Love me! Love me!"

What choice did we have? We gave ourselves over to the increasingly rare sensation of dining in a familial, seat-of-the-pants joint instead of somebody's carefully considered marketing plan. That's how the food came off, too, for all its flaws: it was real, and idiosyncratic, and good in fits and starts. How could we not love Veneto's round, flattish loaves of Italian bread, with their sturdy crusts and deliciously dense, almost doughy texture? Fine stuff -- made even finer by a simple antipasto plate of peppery capicola ham, hard salami, subtle mortadella (bologna's vastly more distinguished ancestor) and nutty, pungent provolone cheese. Add a punctuation of hot, vinegary giardinera, the Italian vegetable relish; subtract the dull, gray slices of roast beef. The sum is the prelude to the ideal Veneto meal.

Next course under this low-risk eating plan: linguini vongole, white version. The noodles, more delicate than your run-of-the-mill linguini, have a softly resilient texture reminiscent of pasta you might labor over for hours at home. The parsleyed clam sauce vibrates with garlic, lemon and good olive oil; red pepper gives it even more life when the kitchen remembers to put it in, which is by no means guaranteed. To go with it, a crisp Gavi di Gavi from the small but respectable wine list (the house wines are to be avoided).

For a side dish, split the sauteed spinach with garlic, which can rise to Grotto-quality heights when they don't oversalt it: glossy and gorgeously green, with just the proper, stemmy crunch to it, swimming in a bath of pan juices that's the exact color of spring.

Next, regular coffee or espresso (the cappuccino's way too weak) along with a terrific tiramisu cut right out of its baking pan in lopsided squares. With its luxurious mascarpone custard, its cushiony layer of sponge cake and its sparing quotients of sugar and liqueur, this dessert makes an eloquent argument for a dish that is much abused. It's the only tiramisu in town for which I can muster enthusiasm; that it's so homely and so cheap (at a modest $3.25) makes it even more appealing.

Outside the above meal plan, you'll take your chances at Veneto. One night's calamari appetizer resembled a basket of fried rubber gaskets; only the spidery little tentacle clusters were worth eating. Perfectly decent penne with Italian sausage suffered from an overly salty red sauce and a paucity of the advertised peppers. Scampi wore a vivid lemon-and-garlic butter that was to absolutely no avail, so hopelessly iodiney were the shrimp involved. A strangely slick-textured fillet of grilled snapper was less than dewily fresh, its "oven-roasted" potatoes more like parboiled spuds striped on the grill for show. The salads are resoundingly ordinary, although the Caesar beats the insalata mista.

But a number of dishes capture the benign ambivalence that Veneto often inspires. Minestrone is particularly light and fresh, if not bursting with character. Verdure Venezia, a whole garden of steamed green beans and cauliflower dressed in balsamic vinaigrette, acquires an odd but not unpleasant kick from crumbled feta cheese, even if the dish never quite achieves liftoff. Fettuccine Alfredo looks gooey, tastes great, thanks to serious Parmesan cheese. Modernized chicken cacciatore may not hang together -- it's a grilled breast topped with sauteed peppers and tomato rather than the classic hunter's stew -- but it works well enough on its own terms, particularly in concert with a peppery mush of polenta.

Ravioli Venezia absolutely confounds: its cheese filling is appallingly gummy, its interesting Bolognese sauce of tomato and pale, ground veal marred by a surfeit of orange grease. Yet the sauce remains strangely appealing, probably because its elements retain their identity; and the pasta's sturdy texture compensates for much. Against your better judgment, you are liable to find yourself eating every last one.

You are also liable to find yourself savoring Veneto's quirky pageant. At the door, an elderly gentleman with the requisite Italian accent delivers you into the hands of the shtick-crazed Neopolitan waiter, who gesticulates wildly while delivering such improbable lines as, "I'm nice! And when I see people like you, I feel even nicer!" Drafts of garlic issue from a partially visible kitchen and a colorful display counter, behind which a mini United Nations comes and goes: Hispanic cooks and busboys, a Dutch hostess, a Yankee or two and assorted countrymen of chef Marco. When a graying, heavyset man who appears to have escaped from an old Vittorio de Sica movie makes an entrance there is a veritable staff stampede to greet him; they dance attendance at his solitary table, where he regards the full Friday night house like a lord.

Chef Marco, who has the build of an unraveling jock, loves to swagger through his domain: tossing a pasta here, glad-handing a departing client there, posing with arms folded across his ample paunch. Occasionally, overcome by the accordion-revved soundtrack, he will break into a brisk, heel-slapping dance that seems straight out of another century. As singular as that sight may be, I prefer to see him helping out in the kitchen; over the course of three visits, I noticed a marked improvement in the food the night Marco was actually working the stoves.

His public seems pleased to welcome the chef to the neighborhood: T. C. Jester's own version of Sharon Stone and her starstruck date; what looks to be an entire hair salon birthdaying up a storm; a starched urban vaquero and his glammy consort. Me too. I happen to love linguini with clam sauce, and Veneto has taught me to love tiramisu. Maybe that's enough -- especially since I know I can rely on Veneto's dotty atmosphere to revive my spirits whenever the sad spread of the similar starts getting me down.

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

antipasto platter, $4.95;
linguini with clam sauce, $9.95;
spinach with garlic, $3.50;
tiramisu, $3.25.

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