There was a time when Baci, the comfortably formal restaurant on Morena Boulevard, maintained a lonely balance on the cutting edge of Italian cooking in San Diego.
This handsomely appointed warren of small rooms opened in 1979, and it was around then that what came to be known, somewhat inaccurately, as Northern Italian cuisine hit the local beaches on the crest of a wave of cream and melted butter.
Baci tossed aside the spaghetti and meatballs of an older generation of Italian houses and introduced fresh, delicate egg pastas, which it lavished with silken sauces of subtle, rather than robust, flavors. It all seemed so new, until the next generation, which includes such immense restaurants as Il Fornaio and Prego, came along with wood-burning ovens, pasta ribbons cut from bread dough and rotisserie-grilled fowls and rabbit.
The best point about Baci is that the cooking seems so calm contrasted with other Italian styles, and it is pleasant to drop by once in a while to check if standards are being maintained. Thus far, the place has always passed inspection. The service remains among the more professional in town, and the menu continues to be a well-written pastiche of refined and relatively rich Italian fare. The kitchen holds up its end of the bargain.
The surprise of a recent visit was the almost mist-like scent of garlic that reached into every corner of the restaurant, heavy but so delicious that it seemed something of an atmospheric aperitif. Garlic is by no means foreign to Baci's style, but it permeates the menu less thoroughly than the air.
It appears most notably in the appetizers of clams oreganati (baked under an herbed crumb crust); the steamed mussels (in white wine seasoned with garlic, parsely and, most unusually, tarragon); the prawns conca d'oro (white wine, garlic and oil) and especially in the veal chop Lamberti. This relatively simple dish calls for a broiled chop to be doused with the headiest of garlic sauces, an untypical treatment given the delicacy of this meat, but a happy one as well.
The appetizer list includes carpaccio of beef, or thinly sliced steak dressed with slivers of Parmesan, capers, garlic, olive oil and, here, Dijon mustard (in San Diego, mustard does not typically play a part in this dish), and the caprese , a somewhat salad-like assemblage of slices of fresh mozzarella layered with sliced tomatoes and fresh basil leaves.
A house specialty, the oysters Baci, treats the bivalves to an unusual dressing of sauce bearnaise blended with pesto and dry anisette liqueur. The calamari fritti remain a reliable starter, if you happen to like fried baby squid--and if you like them a great deal, this offering also is available in an entree-sized portion. The tenderness and sweetness of this seafood is appealing. Although this may seem rather barbarous to some, the best part of the plate are the tiny specimens served whole, which have a nutty flavor and want only a drop of lemon juice, rather than the marinara sauce served on the side.
The kitchen shows an artistic leaning with its presentation of bresaola , the air-cured beef from the Alps. Sliced thinly, this is arranged like red leaves around a blossom-shaped arrangement of arugula, the pleasantly bitter, herb-like lettuce that is welcome in a variety of situations and lends a complementary astringency to the rich, wonderfully flavored meat.
The salad list includes the requisite Caesar; a plate of hearts of palm made with canned palm hearts (fresh are not readily found hereabouts), which can as easily be enjoyed at home, and a house salad that includes bitter radicchio and the perky, welcomed flavor of fresh fennel.
The kitchen generally supplements the pasta selection with an offering or two of the day. The special recently was a remarkably rich presentation called pasta Grondelli that was quite in the "Northern" vein that Baci helped to introduce. For this particular plate, the kitchen covered a sheet of fresh egg dough with bechamel (satiny white sauce flavored with a touch of nutmeg), slices of boiled ham and mozzarella, rolled the whole into an oblong bundle, cut it in pin-wheel slices and baked these in the oven until the faintest hint of a crust had formed. These were served generously doused with the equally rich, relatively tomato-free meat sauce called bolognese , and the combination made an excellent if weighty dish.