Roman holiday

When too much isn't quite enough.

HAVE YOU EVER BEEN to the Olive Garden? I remember eating some saucy fettuccine thing in one of the place's numerous overdecorated rooms, getting very full, and not paying much for the pleasure. And it was a pleasure, I bravely admit. Not for the food, which though undeniably satisfying bore all the subtlety of nuclear war. What I appreciated was the savvy concept—a sort of Denny's-goes-to-Venice lowbrowing of a popular cuisine that isn't necessarily harmed by translation to a populist price point. I think the founders of the Olive Garden must be very smart businesspeople. And I think the founders of Baccano could learn a thing or two from them. Baccano

2218 Western, 770-9000 lunch Mon-Fri 11:30am-2pm; dinner Sun-Thu 4:30-10pm, Fri-Sat 4:30-10:30pm AE, DC, MC, V; full bar Off the bat, they've got a few things in common: Both menus aim for the classics—lasagna, gnocchi, ravioli, parmigiana. Both places visually and aurally fulfill Joe Q. Peoria's fantasy of an Italian vacation, though by comparison Olive Garden is the soul of restraint. From the looks of this cavernous former warehouse, Baccano was designed by Bacchus himself. Its main room resembles a faux piazza, replete with statuary and crumbling terra-cotta and balconied "windows" from which you half expect Juliet to burst out belting "O Solo Mio." The place is a big, drippy tribute to the excesses of the Roman Empire; looking around you begin to understand why it fell. Without apparent irony, the soundtrack caroms from Jerry Vale and Dean Martin mama-mia music to easy-listening to other unexpecteds—whoa, there's a polka! Over-the-top doesn't have to be bad. Let me laud Baccano's desserts without qualification, particularly the shortbread-crusted limoncello cheesecake ($9) and a mammoth wedge of extraordinary tiramisu ($10)—some of the best of that ubiquitous dessert I've had. Alas, more often at Baccano too much is just that, and the place offers several variations on the theme. Inside your bread basket are Parmesan-covered bread sticks, pesto rods, and slices of a country loaf with two dipping sauces. To make the fried ravioli ($10.50), someone in the kitchen took splendid cheese- and spinach-stuffed pasta pillows and then gilded a perfectly good lily by frying them and serving them with crisped sage leaves alongside two sauces, tomato and carrot ginger. The fried pasta was desiccated, and although the tomato sauce befriended the raviolis, the carrot sauce did nothing to complement them. Other dishes were decidedly underwhelming. The spiedini platter appetizer ($14.50) featured pork, prawn, and beef skewers, each topped with a different sauce, plus a green salad for variety. A plate with all this action has no business being lackluster, but it was. The meat arrived tepid and overcooked. The prawns held no flavor at all. The sauces were fun—apricot chutney on the pork, chipotle pesto on the shrimp, red pepper/kalamata relish on the beef—but they couldn't redeem the whole. AND SO IT WENT. An Italian sausage/ red pepper pizza ($11.50), sausage rigatoni ($10.95, $16.50), chicken Marsala ($13.95, $16.95), and grilled pork tenderloin ($18.95) were all fine, perfectly edible, but not in the slightest noteworthy. Oh, the pork surrounded lovely mashed potatoes, the chicken Marsala was admirably redolent of rosemary, the rigatoni quickly dispatched by my hungry daughter. But where was the passion, the poetry, promised by Baccano's excessively romantic surroundings and, more to the point, not-insignificant prices? Thankfully the rich fontina lasagna in a vibrant meat sauce ($13.95) was better-than-average for its creamy fontina reduction in between the layers. An unusual smoked salmon pizza ($12.95) also worked. Although the description was weird—a pizza with salmon, cr譥 frae, red onions, and sun-dried tomatoes?—my helpful waiter sold me on it as "one of the dishes the kitchen really thought about before putting on the menu." Hmmm. Anyway, though the crust was nothing to speak of, the toppings shimmered with interest, with the tomatoes adding just the right punctuation. Another odd-sounding dish, fettuccine in a limoncello alfredo sauce ($12.50, $18), turned out to be irresistible. Apparently pouring a little lemon liqueur into the alfredo sauce is a classic trick from the Old Country; the result is lighter and more compelling than the usual gut-bomb cheese sauce. Pocked with tomatoes, scattered with chives, and enriched with high-quality Parmesan, this dish was a real hit. Now if Baccano could turn out more of these plates consistently, the price tags (even the low version of which is too high) would be warranted and the place could be on its way to becoming a bona fide—if overdecorated—destination. If it can't, well, that's where the place could take a lesson from the venerable Olive Garden. Turn up the lights, pull down the prices, play up the campy quality of the surroundings, tighten consistency, then aim a straight pitch at the spaghetti-and-meatballs set. It's like the old Italian saying: It's better to be a good Spaghetti Factory than a mediocre Il Terrazzo Carmine. . . . Well, it should be an old Italian saying. Disagree? Concur?


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