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BRUSCHETTA'S

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There may not be a namesake "Bruschetta" on staff, but a diner will soon make the acquaintance of this traditional Italian appetizer: All meals begin with a complimentary plate of bruschetta. In a generous portion for two, several slices of bread were topped with chopped tomatoes and red onions, fresh herbs and grated fontinella cheese. Normally, bruschetta is served on toasted bread; this bread was still soft and a bit soggy from the toppings. Additionally, this appetizer could best be described as "chilled bruschetta" -- the toppings were cold, and the cheese still lay in shredded pieces. If it was meant to be served cold, then let's call it interesting. (It was tasty enough, and reminded me of panzanella, a chilled tomato-basil-bread-and-cheese salad that's a popular summer side dish.) But if it was meant to be served warm then somebody goofed.

The mixed greens in the large house salad ($4.50) had that wonderful soft, velvety texture of fresh, young lettuce. Tomatoes, olives, green and red peppers and red onion provided color and contrast. One of the black-clad waitstaff ground fresh pepper over the plate, adding a bit of bite to the refreshing lemon juice-based dressing. My companion, expressing his affection for polenta -- a sweet, moist Italian cornmeal porridge -- ordered "grilled polenta with mussels" ($6.25). I'd have called this "mussels with grilled polenta" since an enormous plate arrived sporting a tower of fresh mussels. It wasn't until half of the 14 mussels had been picked from their shells and devoured that the polenta, resting at the bottom, was revealed.

I'd ordered the cheese tortellini ($16.95), which was a variation on a favorite Italian dish of mine -- a sinful combination of cheese, cream, wine and bacon. No pretense here about "eating light"; this is a throw-caution-to-the-wind, my-diet-starts-tomorrow indulgence. The tortellini was aswim in a rich sherry cream sauce. (The twisted shape of the tortellini with its flaps, crannies and irregular surface area holds so much delicious sauce.) Scattered throughout were tomatoes, peas and pieces of sweet pancetta. To compound my sins, I'd let the waiter grate fresh cheese atop the whole wicked thing. While it didn't necessarily detract from the rich satisfaction of the dish, the pancetta dried out, as if it had sat under a hot lamp. The slight hardening of the sauce on top also suggested this. A stir with the fork remedied the situation, and I proceeded without concern.

My companion made easy work of his substantial entree. Two pieces of pork loin sat atop a pear and Gorgonzola bread pudding surrounded by a piquant, fruity reduction, and a vegetable medley of carrot, broccoli and squash. The pork was flavorful (though it could have been a trifle more tender). The real standout on this plate was the pear and Gorgonzola bread pudding. Light, creamy and sweet, with a texture closer to quiche than a heavier pudding, it was a wonderful accompaniment to the pork.

The dessert menu offered no bread pudding (it seemed as if bread had been present at all courses in this establishment named for a bread treat). My companion went Italian with the tiramisu -- a popular dessert and, I feel, often a make-or-break confection. I'm admittedly a purist, and was delighted to find this tiramisu (which was quite enormous and served in a banana-split plate) right on track: The ladyfingers were discreetly moistened, there was ample marscapone, and the liqueur and cocoa flavors did not overwhelm. I'd asked for the creme brulée. My spoon went through the caramelized sugar crust with a satisfying "crack!" -- beneath, sweet cream custard with just the teeniest specks of vanilla bean.

The delicate flavors of the creme brulée were not complemented, though, by a member of the restaurant staff who while taking in the waning hours of the evening at the bar puffed away on a big cigar. The bar takes up one corner of the smallish dining room, and it doesn't take much dense cigar smoke to permeate the whole room. There were several people still dining in this designated nonsmoking section -- and while some of them may enjoy the heady aroma of a thick cigar with their meal, I don't. It was an odd sort of carelessness in an otherwise accommodating place.

The newly expanded Bruschetta's boasts about twice its previous space, but if the nearly full restaurant on a Tuesday night is any indication, tables may still be scarce on the more popular weekend nights. And, it's still close seating. You'll sit elbow-to-elbow with another table, and while I don't mind this (we always seem to get seated next to a table that's recounting far more interesting lives than ours), it can make dining a bit noisy and distracting. * * *

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