Italian 101

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For too many people, I'm afraid, the phrase "Italian food" immediately conjures images of hearty, garlicky, long-simmered tomato sauces. But those standbys represent only part of the cuisine, and if they're all you know, you're missing the Italian respect for fresh ingredients and light, flavorful sauces. You should enroll yourself in a remedial course at Buca di Bacco.

Located at the corner of Capitol and Milam, the restaurant is perfectly situated for downtown lunches and pretheater/ballet/symphony/opera dining. But if dining is your main consideration, go on a weeknight, when chef/owner Vittorio Preteroti can give you his unhurried personal attention.

An appetizer order of cozze marinara ($8.95), fresh mussels in a light, spicy tomato sauce, showed the proper respect for its ingredients. This is one of the rare renditions of this dish that actually tastes like mussels; the sauce brings out the shellfish's oceanic sweetness. The house garlic bread is perfect for sopping up the juices.

As an off-the-menu starter, Vittorio suggested a pasta platter, half ravioli, half tortellini. The housemade ravioli proved wonderfully cheesy, a happy fit with the sprightly tomato sauce; they were perfectly complemented by the tortellini alla panna, bathed in a (believe it or not) light cream sauce with peas and topped with asparagus.

Such starters are a tough act to follow, but the linguine vongole alla Francese ($12.95) is up to the job: Perfectly cooked linguine is tossed with a light (yes, light) white wine cream sauce, redolent of fresh clams and garlic. Purists might argue that there's a bit too much sauce, but when a sauce is this good, who cares? Almost as good is the pescatore ($12.95), a mound of fresh fish and shellfish sitting atop thin spaghetti in a light, spicy marinara sauce.

The kitchen's particularly deft touch with seafood is apparent in the grilled seafood combination ($17.95 with grilled vegetables). In a simple dish like this, a chef can't hide imperfect ingredients or faulty technique: Impeccably fresh, perfectly grilled red snapper, large shrimp and, best of all, sea scallops are served simply with a drizzle of a fine balsamic vinaigrette. The dish is light, simple and delicious, the epitome of Italian food.

If the restaurant has a weakness, it's the meat dishes. Veal with a mushroom marsala sauce ($15.95) is good but doesn't reach the heights of Buca's other dishes; the sauce is unexciting and a bit heavy. The veal normally comes with a side of fettucini Alfredo, but our server suggested substituting the homemade gnocchi in a beautifully herbed tomato sauce. Gnocchi, little potato dumplings, are often second cousins to lead balloons, but these were light and delicious.

If only they'd accompanied a better meat selection, such as the grilled pork tenderloin ($13.95). Thin slices of sweet pork, their flavor enhanced by the grill, are served drizzled with that excellent vinaigrette.

Seafood crepes ($11.95) are listed in the menu's "al forno" (read: baked) section, along with eggplant parmigiana and cannelloni. A huge amount of red snapper, crab and shrimp is wrapped inside two crepes, smothered in a seafood mushroom cream sauce then baked until the sauce is bubbly and the crepes are brown and crispy around the edges. It's delicious and rich; two people could split it as a hearty appetizer.

There is no dessert menu. Sometimes, I'm told, there's tiramisu, sometimes zabaglione; I've never been there when they are. But I can vouch for the less glamourous-sounding cream puffs. Six cold pastry puffs are drenched in a warm chocolate sauce, not too sweet, not too bitter. The warm sauce contrasts beautifully with the pastries' cool, sweet filling. Each puff makes one perfect mouthful; the order brings a half-dozen, which could be shared by two people. But I ate all of mine.

Vittorio's special digestif makes a satisfying end to the meal. Cold and lemony, it's served in an iced flute glass. Whatever the secret of that elixir, it doesn't stand on ceremony. Vittorio himself brought it to the table -- and poured it from a humble Robert Mondavi bottle.

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