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Restaurant Tours: new kids on the tapas block

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A new year, a new tapas restaurant, this one right next to a new Boston Chicken and only a few steps away from a new Italian "ristorante." Does the word "ubiquitous" come to mind? Piatti, the newest kid on an already overcrowded tapas block, needs to offer more than good food to get post-Christmas, pre-tax-season depressives out on a cold night. Fortunately, owner and executive chef Sami Signorino has come up with a visually exciting venue, a sophisticated and varied tapas selection that ought to compete with the best of them, and refreshingly reasonable prices.

Piatti is full of witty, functional art, all of it created by Signorino's talented family. Codesigner, artist, and carpenter is brother Michele; sister Sallie is responsible for the epoxy switch-plate covers and clocks; and Judy Signorino (mom) showcases her ceramic plates ("piatti" means plate in Italian) and tiles. You name it, it was either handcrafted or handpainted: the etched-glass vestibule, the halogen-lit grappa cabinet, the wine rack shaped like a sea anemone, the yards of mosaic tile interspersed with fanciful fish tiles, the free-form rice paper lamps. There's even a charming outdoor side patio, complete with a 12-by-15-foot waterfall. Of course it's not operational right now, so huddle around the grappa cabinet and sample the tapas.

Piatti's menu (which points out that the Spanish word "tapa" means a lid or cover and originally referred to a slice of bread or cheese used to keep the flies off the wine) ranges over the entire Mediterranean (although Spanish and Italian dishes predominate), with a glossary to explain some of its exotic ingredients, such as "zaatar . . . a blend of sumac bark, wild oregano, hyssop, and sesame seed frequently used as a seasoning in the Mediterranean region." Signorino, formerly at Jezebel and Misto, says she appreciates the exceptional freedom of choice she gets from focusing on an area that grows almost every food product. Her decision to concentrate on tapas reflects a personal preference for sampling several different types of foods at a meal. Gus Arrellano, who worked with her at the previous two places, runs the front of the house.

It's such an appealing menu that we were hard put to find anything among the more than 30 choices that we didn't want to try. Of those we settled on, our favorites were the salad of bosc pear, gorgonzola, pine nuts, and mixed greens with sesame dressing ($3.50) with its different textures and flavors; succulent grilled shrimp with pistachio pesto, tomato, and the sharp bite of wilted arugula and spinach ($4.25); grilled portabello mushrooms with sage, grana padano (basic parmesan grating cheese from the Padano region of Italy), and polenta cake ($3.25); moist, creamy risotto with wild mushrooms and truffle oil ($3.95); and firm, flaky Nile perch with the salty kick of a black olive crust ($3.95). Mashed potatoes ($1.95) had a delicate hint of parmesan and the surprise of sweet, roasted whole garlic cloves studded throughout. Artichoke-filled ravioli and spaghetti squash in basil cream ($4.50) made us long for a double helping.

Kamut grain (also called Egyptian or ancient wheat) with spinach, mushrooms, and feta cheese ($1.95), although flavorful, was very chewy, almost like an undercooked rice. It's a taste I have yet to acquire. Grilled vegetables with lemon raspberry vinaigrette ($1.95) looked wonderful but had disappointingly little flavor; and crab fingers in a garlic citrus sauce ($4.95) were undercooked and overpriced when you consider the size of a crab's finger. Pear granita, a complimentary palate freshener, was too cloyingly sweet.

There were only two dessert choices ($4 each). Bummer. One, a frozen raspberry and chocolate tiramisu, was in such a state of permafrost that it resisted all attempts at excavation; we waited for it to thaw only to find out that it had tasted better frozen. Flourless chocolate cake was rich and dense but undercooked, more like a firm pudding. The cappuccino ($2) lacked conviction.

Despite these few missteps, and most new spots have their share, Piatti succeeds in serving up an interesting and tasty selection. And most of us have had the experience of ordering what seem like inexpensive individual choices only to experience sticker shock at the total tab; at Piatti, even with double merlots for three and cappuccinos for four, our check was less than $20 apiece.

Piatti, 215 W. North, is open for dinner 5 to 11:30 Tuesday through Sunday. Brunch is served 10 to 2:30 Saturday and Sunday. For more information call 266-2929.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Schulz.

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