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Cheerful Cichetti 

The sparkling Venetian tapas at Pesce give us a welcome break from rich holiday fare

Wednesday, Dec 10 2003
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The most heartwarming sight I've been privy to in ages was that of Stuart, our Thanksgiving host, crouching by the oven, affixing sausages and bacon with toothpicks to our holiday bird. "Oh," I said, "isn't that sweet; he's feeding the turkey." Actually it's his neat trick for trouble-free basting and delightful hors d'oeuvres; the sausages and bacon eked out a spread of starters that included foie gras on toast and buttery fennel-and-artichoke frittata. The vegetable sides were especially delicious: What, we wondered, was the secret of Peter's extraordinary mashed potatoes? "Half a pound of butter," he said, "infused with two minced truffles."

My sister's work schedule mandated a Friday Thanksgiving this year, so I got to follow one rich, overpowering, indulgent meal with another less than 24 hours later. She put together an astonishing feast, plucking all the recipes from Bon Appetit's annual multimenu holiday orgy. We started with a soup called Oysters Rockefeller (a quarter-pound of butter, two cups of cream). The green beans were dressed with goat cheese and bacon. And what (in addition to the sage) made her sage mashed potatoes so tasty? Why, 2 1/2 cups of grated white cheddar cheese, as well as the requisite butter and heavy cream.

Is it any wonder that I woke up on Saturday feeling that I had an extra layer of butterfat right under my skin? 'Tis the season: For the next several weeks, all bets are off. We will be offered unctuous pâtés, extravagant roasts, innocent-looking cookies made with quantities of the best butter. There is not only eggnog to contend with, but also eggnog lattes.

I knew exactly what I wanted to eat as a break from all this irresistible rich fare: the bright, clean-tasting Venetian seafood on offer at the charming Pesce on Polk Street. I'd had a delightful supper there with Robert, who'd been raving about the place since he'd dined there with his wife Gail; he wanted to have some of those dishes again and further explore the menu of cold and hot cichetti (a Venetian term for "small bite"). We drove over after seeing Chris Marker's Sans soleil, a dreamlike documentary made up of small bites itself. We didn't have a reservation, and the cheerful host said there would be a short wait "of 25 minutes," so we settled in at the long zinc bar, figuring we'd try a few oysters while enjoying a Negroni and a glass of obscure Venetian white wine and admiring the crabs and lobsters on ice.

But we were led to a table in the tiny, cramped back room before we had a chance to order any shellfish or finish our drinks. Our waitress thought we had ordered too many dishes from among the nine cold cichetti, 15 hot, and a few special entrees (sautéed fish, seafood pasta) listed on a blackboard, but we waved away her concern. (In the event, she unconsciously edited our list: The fagioli and baccala never showed up, either on the table or on our bill. We noticed its omission but decided we were getting enough to eat.) One of the reasons I like dining on tapas or small plates is the pleasure of picking a bite here and there from a table littered with tempting dishes (at many Middle Eastern restaurants, my ordering begins and ends with the array of starters known as mezze). But at Pesce the plates come out of the kitchen one by one, allowing you to concentrate on the textures and flavors of each. "It's like a tasting menu," Robert said.

We started with bruschetta of thin, silvery anchovies entwined with slivers of roasted peppers wittily cut to mimic them, and dotted with a few salty black Ligurian olives, perfect with the dregs of my Negroni. (We'd hesitated between the alici bruschetta and a dish of grilled sardines on fregula pasta with tomato and clams, which I'd love to try, but I've never had better anchovies.) I chose an unfamiliar white, Vermentino, to go with our braised octopus salad, velvety slices of the beast mingling with slices of potato that also echoed the size and texture of the octopus, with crisp crescents of celery in a garlicky, lemony vinaigrette. Robert continued with Pino & Toi, another little-seen wine.

The salad was a hard act to follow, and I was, in fact, disappointed with our Sicilian swordfish rolls, rather massive bundles of the fish wrapped around a bread-crumb stuffing and topped with green olives and capers. I found them meaty but uninspired. Robert said that they'd been prepared differently (and more tastily) on his previous visit.

For a change of pace, we ordered one of the two meat dishes on the menu (Pesce does, after all, mean fish, so carnivores are forewarned!), porco gratinato. If there are only two meat dishes on offer, porco gratinato deserves to be one of them: several plump little browned chunks of braised pork voluptuously bathed in cream and dressed with bacon, with a few slices of firm polenta alongside. The plate came out at the same time as the vegetable dish we'd ordered -- sautéed spinach crunchy with pine nuts and sweetened with fat golden raisins, a nice foil for the pale meat. The pig was so delicious that it made me greedy.

Our last dish, a special of lobster spaghetti, was somewhat anticlimactic (and, at $19.50, more than twice as expensive as any of the other plates we'd ordered). The smallish half-lobster was perched in its shell atop the unremarkable spaghetti, drenched in a sweetish, sticky sauce of brandy and cream; overcooked coins of zucchini were scattered about, to little effect. The lobster itself was pleasant, but what we'd ordered as a luxury turned out to be less luxurious than the bright, sharp, vinegary anchovies and the savory octopus. Sensation over expense!

Neither of us felt compelled to order dessert, either by our appetites or the dessert list (chilled flourless chocolate cake, mango sorbet, biscotti and vin santo, among others), but we were pleasantly surprised by the bread pudding studded with dried fruits, enjoyed with a glass of a dryish Italian dessert wine, Ramandolo.

I returned to Pesce with my brother for a celebratory dinner after he'd completed a big project. It was a chilly, rainy night, and we felt welcomed by the warm golden light. Tucked into a window table in the long, narrow front room, where the bar dominates the view, I appreciated the subdued but well-thought-out décor: the patterned small-hexagonal-tiled floor, dark wood paneling that goes up two-thirds of the walls, and chic drum-shaped lighting fixtures over the bar. We started with two each of the three oysters on offer -- Kumamato, Hama Hama, and Miyagi -- and they were as carefully served as if we'd ordered a grand plateau de fruits de mer, on ice on a little stand, with several lemon wedges, a cup of shallot vinaigrette, another of cocktail sauce, and a crock of creamed horseradish. They were also impeccably fresh, and very festive with a glass of Prosecco.

The beautifully arranged, bountiful platter of house-smoked salmon, trout, and sturgeon that followed continued the feeling of glamour and festivity: The silky fish were accompanied by heaps of capers, sliced red onion, a pile of crisp shredded lettuce in vinaigrette, and a pouf of whipped horseradish cream. The salmon and trout were almost translucent; the sturgeon was especially good. The plate could only have been improved, in my mind, if the baguette slices had been toasted.

The dayboat scallop salad that came next was a crisp interlude of slightly bitter arugula leaves with chunks of sweet orange and tiny black olives, lightly oiled, with half a dozen slices of the lightly cooked scallops strewn about. It was dreamily succeeded by a half-order of Dungeness crab linguine, the al dente pasta drenched with butter and lots of shredded meat. And this night we did taste the fagioli and baccala, the flaked smoked cod so plump and clean-tasting after its night-long soak in water that I thought it could have been fresh, combined with big suave borlotti beans in a broth of tomato, onion, and white wine.

We finished our small plates with the other meat dish on offer, a young (i.e., smallish) but meaty lamb shank in a fresh tomato sauce, and an order of roasted pumpkin with toasted almonds and rosemary. "The lamb is sweet and the pumpkin isn't," my brother observed, and they were excellent together.

I love Pesce, not only because of its impeccably fresh seafood and exciting little dishes, but also because you can have a luxurious collation at a reasonable price. Oysters, anchovies, octopus, crab! I felt like Diamond Jim Brody.

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Meredith Brody

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