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GRAPPA ITALIAN RESTAURANT

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According to one futurist, diners come to restaurants to be entertained as well as fed, at least according to a poll conducted by Watts Wacker, managing partner for the public research organization Yankelovich, Inc.

Wacker, who considers himself a "cultural historian," explains that dining out has evolved into an integral part of the minivacations more and more people are taking. And the restaurant that provides customers good food, personable service and fun atmosphere offers these critical ingredients, the "welcome respite of rest and relaxation from their harried daily lives." Those that don't are not likely to survive, he predicts.Not surprisingly we saw ourselves concurring with Wacker's finding as we entered Grappa Italian Restaurant in Park City during our recent weekend getaway. We filed in with other diners eager to try the summer menu at one of Utah's newer and more ambitious restaurant projects. Extensive renovations of a historic hotel have produced four exterior levels of patio dining and an open interior of panoramic windows, beautiful tile and carved woodwork with dried flowers ornately wrapped around banisters. A large wood burning open hearth kitchen anchors the main floor.

As we sat on the outside patio, we savored the local color of Park City's Main Street as well as the bustle and atmosphere of this upscale eatery. The contrast was amusing as well as occasionally distracting. Shaggy dogs wearing bandanas barked from the beds of pickup trucks careening down Main Street, residents of a historic boarding house sipped beer from their balcony perch across the street, while Grappa's well-heeled customers, having parked their Range Rovers, sampled Northern Italian cuisine that could be described as either very good or somewhat pretentious. We found it both.

Our two appetizers reflected a bit of this contradiction. The brushetta , described as slices of thick peasant bread grilled and topped with olive oil, garlic, basil and sliced roma tomatoes, was rather ordinary. The tomatoes were not roma and slivers of garlic dotting the tomatoes were barely brazed by the flame. The bread slices were thin and the basil was sparse at best. The polenta Napolean ($8) was star shaped polenta layered with strips of tender roasted chicken, sprinkled with gorgonzola and was served atop grilled vegetables. Presented in a large bowl with sprigs of rosemary and a savory chicken broth, this dish was more in keeping with the attention to detail in presentation reflected in the building and service.

Other appetizers include calamari friti, served with pesto aioli ($7); miniature calzone filled with grilled salmon, cucumbers and cambanzola cheese ($7); crab and shrimp cakes crusted in angel hair potatoes, served with a sun-dried tomato, sherry wine and shallot vinaigrette ($10); wild mushroom and roasted garlic mashed potatoes ($8); and gratinee of tomatoes served with layers of fontina and parmesan cheese and topped with fresh basil and garlic bread crumbs ($6).

The four soups on the menu each sounded wonderful so we ordered a sampling ($6), enough for a few tablespoons of each. While we did not get to try the romano cheese dumplings with roasted chicken soup, each displayed a distinctive color, flavor and texture that was most appealing. Our favorite was the buttery puree of Italian mushrooms, followed by the chilled tomato topped with chives and creme fraiche and the bisque of potato, leek and cucumber sprinkled with fresh dill. Separately, the soups cost $5. A house foccacio bread with a dipping sauce of balsamic vinegar, rosemary, garlic and extra virgin olive oil was also very good.

Five salads further compounded overselection anxiety from the extensive a la carte menu. We chose the wild summer mountain greens with parmesan bread sticks. While there was only one braided but tasty bread stick, the presentation of the salad was sensational (as was the case with many of the other dishes. Some friends at a nearby table were taking pictures of their dishes as they came from the kitchen!) A large array of green and leaf lettuces, though arugala was surprisingly absent, is served with radiant strands of carrot, beet, slices of golden pepper and topped with edible violet and orange flower petals. The plate is highlighted with a sprinkling of fresh herbs and cracked black pepper. A bottle of honey mustard herb vinaigrette accompanies the beautiful portion.

Other salads include antipasti ($9 or $16), traditional Caesar ($5), and house salad with walnut oil and chianti dressing ($5).

The entree list is extensive with innovative and adventurous preparations that include filet of sea bass baked on a cedar plank, grilled rack of lamb with porcini mushrooms and pine nuts, New York strip steak with asiago mashed potatoes and polenta, pesto and fontina stuffed shrimp, grilled salmon with spinach and creamy tarragon sauce, and oven pit roasted game hen (average price $22). Pasta preparation includes baked ravioli bolognese, cappelini calamari, cappeloni with grilled chicken and artichoke hearts and agnolotti (pasta pockets filled with shrimp) and grilled whole prawns served with a basil cream sauce. These range from $15 to $24.

We sampled a lamb special ($24), loin seasoned with rosemary, garlic and truffles, then sliced with an al dente risotto. None of the promised seasoning really emerged from the dish. The smoked asparagus lasagna ($18) was a generous portion with layers of pasta, tomato, mozarella and ricotta cheese. While flavorful, it was just a bit dry. An Italian meat pizza ($10) came with more pepperoni than the promised capacola, pancetta and bresaola, or dried beef. Other pizza choices include assorted Italian olives, wild mushroom, pepperocini and artichoke, and grilled vegetables, to name a few.

The four desserts were ample servings (and should have been for $7). The citrus sponge cake, again carefully presented in heart and star shapes, was our favorite, not overly sweet. The tiramisu came with a cloying cream filling; the chocolate decadence torte was just bitter-sweet enough; and the heaping layered Napolean was served with an interesting blend of tart blackberries and red seedless grapes with creme anglaise.

One of the owners of Grappa, open since February, called me this spring to boast about the beauty of the restoration and the skill of the kitchen. As a lawyer, he could easily be accused of being an "ambiance chaser" and there Grappa clearly succeeds with its presentation from the kitchen, decor and overall elan. Yet we were left with the impression that these important considerations were not quite infused into the dishes we sampled.

For those of us minivacationers seeking fun, food and entertainment value in a restaurant, Grappa certainly is worth a visit.

Rating: * * * 1/2

Grappa Italian Restaurant and Cafe, 151 Main, Park City. 645-0636. Open Tuesday through Sunday; with lunch served, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Cafe Menu from 2 to 4 p.m. Dinner, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Accepts major credit cards; no personal checks. Reservations recommended.