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The Power of Love 

Intimate service saves the day at uneven Il Bacio.

Il Bacio dishes up top-notch service, along with a delightful mix of marinated olives and carrots. - WALTER NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Il Bacio dishes up top-notch service, along with a delightful mix of marinated olives and carrots.

If you doubt the ability of great service to smooth over rough edges and generate goodwill, step into Il Bacio, Antonino Calandra's one-year-old ristorante in Little Italy.

The space — once occupied by Salvatore's and, more recently, Tutto Giorno — is small, snug, and humble. The street corner on which it sits is hardly trendy. The menu includes some interesting takes on Italian standards, but not everything is perfectly prepared. And the à la carte prices belie the modest surroundings — that is, they're too darn high.

But the service? Ah, the service. It's warm, polished, personal, and so gracious that even when things go wrong — as they did on both our recent visits — diners are likely to forgive, forget, and make reservations for the following Saturday. It's no wonder the place's name translates to "the kiss."

Consider our Saturday-night visit, on an evening when Il Bacio was nearly booked solid, and the best we could snag was a 6 p.m. table near the door — never a good spot in winter. It's safe to say we have never before been so politely — or relentlessly — rushed through a meal as we were this evening. Our dinner unfolded at record speed.

But look at all Calandra and his crew accomplished in that time: Coats got closeted; wines were served with all due fanfare; tabletops got crumbed and water glasses refilled; and three courses, plus cappuccino, came and went before our dashing host helped us back into our parkas and bid us arrivederci. "It's always a pleasure to serve you," called our waiter as the door snapped shut behind us.

Total elapsed time? Sixty action-packed minutes!

"So, what did you think?" I asked my companion as we toddled down the sidewalk on our frozen feet, back to the valet's station. He had eaten it all up. "What service!" he gushed. "What style! When are we going back?"

Yes, such is the power of love — at least as orchestrated by a slick, slender Sicilian with a mellifluous accent and the endearing habit of checking his long, dark hair in the mirror each time he passes.

Still, this is a review, not a mash note. It would be wrong to gush over the service without exposing the occasional flaws: the slightly fishy shrimp in the pollo ai gamberetti, for instance, or the tough, disappointing osso buco. Then there was the Eoliana salad, a pricey but pristine toss of leaf lettuces, capers, cucumbers, and diced tomatoes in a fragrant oregano vinaigrette. Menu description aside, we found only one skinny slice of the touted mushrooms in that salad and a single representative of the promised green olives.

Plus, with à la carte prices that reach $31 for a perfectly fine if entirely unexceptional grilled strip steak, served with nothing more exotic than a bundle of tender-crisp asparagus spears and a passel of roasted potatoes, you would think Il Bacio's breadbasket would hold something more scintillating than soft Italian slices and foil-wrapped butter.

There were, however, standouts — dishes that provided sweet redemption for executive chef Greg Hoover and his kitchen. Among them, count the rustic nosh of marinated olives and carrots, fragrant with lemon and rosemary. Also consider a brisk, refreshing salad of oranges and anise-y fresh fennel, and the savory antipasto plate, featuring sheer sheets of imported Genoa salami and provolone, creamy gorgonzola crumbs, olive-oil-drenched slabs of sun-dried tomatoes, and two perfectly trimmed artichokes.

Also seductively prepared were the high-quality frozen pastas from Gallucci's, including tender spinach-and-ricotta-stuffed ravioli and voluptuous veal-stuffed tortellini, in a robust bolognese of ground beef and spicy Italian sausage.

To drink, the mostly Italian wine list ranges from full-bodied Amarones and Barolos to sparkling Proseccos and sweet Moscatos, with plenty of interesting options pegged at less than $35. That included our $30 bottle of Antinori 2006 Sangiovese Santa Cristina, a soft, fruity, and well-structured red from Tuscany, which went as well with the tortellini as it did with the grilled steak.

But Calandra saves the most dolce dish for last: an exceptionally dainty tiramisu, based on a family recipe. Barely sweet and lighter than the brisk air pouring through the nearby door, it's our first must-try dessert of the year. It's the region's best rendition of an often-tired staple.

A wise colleague once opined that — more than fine food, exalted drink, or a happening vibe — what diners really want from a restaurant is a sense of being loved. Give them that, he claimed, and they'll overlook even the most egregious flaws.

Personally, we aren't quite that forgiving. Still, if the day ever arrives when all the food reaches the level of the service — not to mention that tiramisu — Il Bacio will surely deliver the sweetest kiss in town.

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