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Betsy Block

Restaurant Review: Bricco

We arrive at Bricco on a Friday at 7pm and are promptly whisked past the madness of the bar and up to the private club-like calm of the second floor as if we're VIPs. (The host asks us if we're staying at the Park Plaza, so maybe he's given us someone else's prime seat by accident, but we don't really think so. Or care.)

"In the vineyards of the Piedmont region of Italy," the menu tells us, "'Bricco' refers to the summit of the vineyard. Here, at the highest point, the grapes are harvested for the best quality wines." Seated at a table for two by a window overlooking Hanover Street, I, too, am at a high point. And I'm about to go even higher.

Chef Bill Bradley and his staff are taking me there. A combination of gracious service, soothing surroundings and an inventive menu that keeps us seated and eating for hours all make Bricco an old-fashioned kind of place, where dining out is the evening's main event. Think understated elegance -- my favorite kind.

They make much of the fact that the menu is divided into three sections: tastings, which are said to be like the Italian version of tapas; the first course offerings, which are a combination of appetizers, salads and pastas; and the second course, or entree. If you order one from each category, as we did, don't be in a hurry. Even though the pacing is perfect, a four-course meal takes time. (One note: they have that "awfully generous with your money" attitude here. They encourage diners to order at least a few tastings before the first course, which adds to the bill, and they offer you bottled water which later rings in at $5, and they "forget" to mention the price of specials ...)

The tastings are all over the map in terms of flavor. Bradley's smoky, straightforward grilled calamari reminds us of how good simple food can be. The wild mushroom and goat cheese crostini is another tasty and unpretentious offering. The saltiness of the smoked salmon "tartare" makes this dish a bit more assertive, though the bold flavors of the fish are balanced by the delicious, unsalted house-made potato chips.The fried olives stuffed with anchovies lie on the other end of the intensity spectrum. The delicate, crispy house-cured salt cod fritters, served with a light, lemony aioli, were my favorite.

On one visit I try the steamed mussels, which have a surprising, challenging smoky bitterness that comes from smoked pepper and broccoli rabe. The butternut squash soup is intensely rich and sweet from pears; my friend says she's finished, then keeps picking up her spoon. Finally, there is no more.

Another time I order the fusilli with smoked chicken, wild mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes. It's fine, but then I see something that taps into my dark side. Three of the seven deadly sins -- envy, greed and lust -- take hold of me as I watch Chef Bradley saunter up to a neighboring table with what appears to be a giant white truffle and shave generous slices over their pasta dishes. Not to be a Philistine, but I bet my fusilli would taste a lot better with a few curls. As the chef heads purposefully back to the kitchen (passing thoughtlessly by our table), I wonder bitterly who those women are, anyway.

I remember a nun I met years ago who in her youth had believed that spices, by inflaming the passions, were doing the devil's work. She wouldn't have coveted her neighbor's sensuous truffles, but she would have found the whole fish with roasted vegetables heavenly. However I, as a much less evolved being, found it bland and overcooked. In theory it's beautiful: just a whole red snapper, wood-fired, curled around some simple, seasonal roasted vegetables. A bowl of "salsa verde" (parsley, capers and extra virgin olive oil) comes on the side. However, with no salt, pepper, or even a teeny squeeze of lemon to enliven the (dry) snapper itself, this dish leaves me wishing for a less exalted treatment.

But on another visit we are absolutely wowed by our main courses. The tuna with wild mushrooms, foie gras and silky mashed potatoes in a mushroom demi-glace is rich and hearty and a dream of a cold-weather dish. The sea bass is complemented (but not outdone by) rich, buttery spinach, smooth cauliflower puree and a topping of sweet caramelized onions, currants and pine nuts.

Desserts are charmingly, wonderfully conceived, and for the most part, they are understated (read: not too sweet). And, they are all gorgeous. I would have liked The Great Pumpkin, a pumpkin custard served in a tiny roasted pumpkin and then bruleed, better if the pumpkin hadn't been refrigerator-cold. The chocolate box filled with cookies is beautiful and fun, like receiving a present. Well, a present that you pay for yourself. And I like the flowery flavor of the lavender-laced mascarpone in the rich cannoli.

Sometimes, at least according to my nun friend's standards, Chef Bradley and his crew are devilishly inflaming diners' ardor with their flavor-packed offerings. I may go to hell for believing this, but so be it: They should definitely keep it up.