HUNTINGTON BEACH — Baci was always a plain-looking place, but chef Angelo Parisi turned out great risottos and southern Italian dishes, and continental fish and veal dishes to boot. The menu range made it a restaurant for almost any occasion.
With its spectacular redesign, Baci is now suited to any occasion but a somber one. From the outside, you might take it for a Venetian palace at Epcot Center--it's a rectangle of bright coral stucco offset by pastel green (purely decorative) shutters.
Inside, the walls are now covered with trompe l'oeil views of Italy, ancient and modern. Statues of cherubs clutching bunches of grapes sit beatifically atop the sideboards and room dividers. Light opera plays at a civilized level on the sound system, though it's nearly drowned out by the noise and sheer exuberance of this place any time it's more than half full.
Parisi is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a keen student of regional Italian cuisine--his menu explicitly represents various regions of Italy. Many of the best dishes prepared in this kitchen are Neapolitan, not so surprising, because Parisi's family comes from Naples.
You automatically get a basket of garlic bread, and not the oily, sloppily conceived sort presented in most of our Italian restaurants but lightly buttered rustic ciabatta rubbed with garlic. The ideal accompaniment to it would be one of Baci's first-rate soups. The fine stracciatella is spinach and a coddled egg in scalding chicken broth. Even better is the pasta e fagioli, a delicious white bean and pasta soup that is at once delicate and intense.
The house salad, insalata Baci, is various lettuces tossed with carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes and red onions, all in a thick Italian vinaigrette. Insalata di spinaci is made with spinach, thinly sliced mushrooms, a plentiful scattering of chopped bacon and the same good vinaigrette dressing. For a more specifically Italian salad, try pomodoro e cipolla, a plate of tomatoes and red onions sliced razor-thin and dressed with fresh oregano and extra-virgin olive oil.
It's tempting to make a meal of the antipasti and never even get to the pasta course. There's combinazione Siciliana, calamari and whole prawns sauteed in marinara sauce redolent of white wine, garlic and parsley. Carpaccio di manzo consists of thin slices of cured raw beef topped with arugula, capers and imported Parmesan. Order antipasto alla Milanese and you will be rewarded with a mixed plate of mozzarella Caprese (with tomato and basil), tangy prosciutto, expertly roasted peppers and marinated grilled (and peeled) eggplant.
But it would be a crime to eat here and not have at least one pasta. A good starting place is rigatoni ai quattro formaggi in its deliciously creamy sauce of Gorgonzola, Fontina, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses.
Farfalle alla vodka is beautifully cooked bow-tie pasta tossed with a mild combination of arugula and prosciutto in a light pink tomato cream sauce. It's not bad, but a more liberal dose of vodka would give it a more grown-up taste. Gnocchi can be had with either a classic marinara or an overwhelming pesto sauce, but these notoriously difficult potato dumplings are disappointingly gummy here.
The risottos are a delightful surprise. These grainy, fragrant preparations of short-grain Italian rice taste as if they have been carefully stirred for hours in an Italian stove. Risotto alla Milanese strikes the right balance between chicken, saffron and Parmesan. Risotto alla Champagne e funghi porcini strikes the right balance between the earthiness of the mushrooms and the elegance of the sparkling wine.
If you've come for a celebratory dinner, save room for pesce spada Via Veneto, a thin swordfish steak topped with an impossibly rich cream sauce flavored with mustard, capers and Cognac. Involtini di pollo might be every bit as rich. This is a whole chicken breast stuffed with prosciutto, spinach and mozzarella and blanketed in a thick mushroom sauce.
Parisi makes osso buco of both veal and lamb. In either case, the hearty stewed marrow-filled shanks come in a savory tomato sauce with pureed carrots and onions--the sort of treatment that is usually finished with a sprinkle of gremolata (minced parsley, garlic and lemon peel), though Baci omits that step. Filetto di manzo al pepe nero is a tender filet mignon dressed with a nicely reduced black pepper and beef stock reduction. But best--and heartiest--of all is braciole, a Neapolitan beef roll stuffed with a spiced ground meat and vegetables. This is the kind of dish you find in almost every Italian restaurant back East but rarely in California.
Baci also has a long dessert menu, which is getting to be a rarity these days. Heading the list is zuppa Inglese, a liqueur-soaked yellow sponge cake topped with custard and layered with bitter chocolate. I'd call it the best Italian dessert in the county, hands down. Also on hand are dependable cannoli, the inevitable tiramisu, and a list of Italian-style ice cream coupes, made with gelati that Baci procures from a local ice cream maker. The smoothly textured strawberry gelato tastes like pure fruit on ice.
Because beneath the facade, Baci is still good at the basics, and that is the most important quality a restaurant can have.
Baci is expensive. Antipasti are $4.25 to $10.95. Pastas run $9.95 to $14.95. Main courses are $11.95 to $18.95.
* Baci, 18478 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday, dinner 5 to 10:15 p.m. nightly. (714) 965-1194. All major credit cards.