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BACI TRATTORIA

As I sat at our table on Baci Trattoria's mezzanine level admiring the creative and colorful decor, as well as the bountiful bowls of pasta sent forth steaming from the open kitchen just below, I thought about a comment from psychologist Abraham Maslov: "A first-rate soup is more creative than a second-rate painting."

Maslov's idea is more about the importance of creativity as a process regardless of the product rather than about our society's obsession with food. What struck me from my first impressions of Baci's was that I found both the art, including massive stained glass windows, neon highlighted paintings, a surrealistic mural, as well as the minestrone soup, first rate.Art and Italian cuisine have found a lighthearted and appealing shrine in Baci Trattoria's brightly lit and open interior. I kept waiting for Marcello Mastriani, complete with coat draped over his shoulders, to come waltzing in across the shiny marble floor, dipping to the modern and traditional Italian music playing in the background.

Another creative touch that impressed us at the start of our meal was the way Baci presents Pierre's bread, served in large slabs. Instead of butter, which is available upon request, our waiter poured each of us a small dish of olive oil from tall cruets on the table, which we mixed with balsamic vinegar and grated parmesan to spread on the bread. Even our two children, confirmed "butteraholics," dove in with the kind of gusto that would have pleased any Italian grandmother as well as Fellini.

A lengthy list of appetizers, ranging in price from $2 to $6, tops the extensive Italian menu. Neither of our choices were as engaging or appetizing as the brothy minestrone. The one half dozen fried Fontina cheese sticks ($4.99) were good, dunked in the fresh tomato sauce, but a bit pricy. A bit more complex, though lacking any flavor, was the deep fried artichoke leaves each stuffed with a small shrimp and dipped in surprisingly plain garlic mayonnaise.

Our disappointment could be attributed to our selections. Other more interesting choices include shrimp scampi garlic toast, chilled pasta roll stuffed with spinach, ricotta, and prosciutto, carpaccio, fried calamari, fried zucchini, mixed antipasto, clams or mussels marinara and prosciutto and melon.

A simple cheese pizza ($5.99 and incidentally there are a lot of those kind of unrounded prices on the menu) rekindled our taste buds. The thin crust was loaded with rich, buttery cheeses and subtly seasoned with slices of fresh Roma tomato and fresh basil leaves. Other pizzas (each $6.99) include carmelized onion, shrimp, prosciutto, vegetable topped with grilled eggplant among a plethora of other non-meat items, as well as mushroom, pepperoni and sausage. One choice of calzone stuffed with sausage, tomato, peppers, mozzarella and fontina, is also available.

Pasta choices, each priced at $8.99 except for the seafood marinara which costs $11.99, come with a choice of minestrone or a large plate of mixed green salad. Ravioli, spinach fettucine with clams, linguini with shrimp, fettucine with ground red chilies, vegetable lasagne, spaghetti with meatballs or sausage, rigatoni and spaghetti carbonara with a creamy cheese and bacon sauce, round out the list.

We were more attracted by the specialties and sampled two of the veal dishes - both the parmesan and saltimbocca (each $15.99). Like our appetizers they were adequate, ample in portion, but suffered from some excesses. The saltimbocca, which literally means "jump in the mouth" the Roman way, was overpowered by the saltiness of the proscuitto slices. Any hint of sage was lost. The veal parmesan drowned in cheese, though the tomato sauce presented a pleasant tasty foil to the bland veal. Sauteed threads of green and yellow squash with the specials were oily and too salty.

An evening special, slow roasted leg of lamb with rosemary and garlic ($13.99), was more memorable. Not only was the lamb tender, but the seasonings in the sauce were more in harmony than the other dishes. Veal or chicken picatta, chicken caccitore, scampi, sea bass and shrimps, grilled sausages, as well as evening specials complete the dinner menu.

The dessert we tried characterized more the appetizing and sensual name Baci (which means "kiss") suggests. Tiramisu ($2.99), layers of lady fingers soaked in Kahula alternated with a sweet cream cheese filling and covered with whipped cream, was very satisfying, punctuating a truly enjoyable though somewhat uneven dining experience.