A few days earlier, with torta di spinaci on my mind, I'd stopped at Bar Italia for lunch. Right away I observed that owner Mengesha Yohannes had effected some subtle modifications since my last visit. For one thing, the restaurant wasn't there anymore. In its place was what else? a Starbuck's. Whether or not the epic proliferation of Seattle's cranky-juice chain truly heralds the end of civilization, another Starbuck's is the last thing you want to see when you got a hankerin' for torta di spinaci.
I did not panic. My mind, though not quite the steel trap it once was, eventually produced the recollection that Bar Italia had moved at the beginning of August. The tiny new storefront, I remembered, is only a stone's throw from the tiny old storefront, and thither I lumbered with all speed. If I didn't set a record for the 100-yard toddle, it was only because the person I accosted to bum a cigarette from was slow to produce a lighter.
The day was beautiful sun shining, birds singing, that sort of thing so guests were directed to the breezy new patio. At the gate I received a warm embrace from the host, an attractive young man whom I'd never met but who nevertheless was delighted to see me again and hadn't it been a fun party? As he adjusted an umbrella to shield me from harmful UVA rays, I struggled in vain to place him. Mistaken identity? Blackout? Who cares? Like I always say, warm embraces from attractive young people should always be included with lunch. I later observed that I was by no means the lone recipient of the staff's affections; these Bar Italians were doling out sugar left and right.
Because a fennel salad was the lunch special, I thought it wise to forgo my spinach pie. Like I always say, nothing shouts "light lunch in autumn" louder than fennel. Incredibly, I was once mired in ignorance. Brainwashed by propaganda concerning its so-called licorice taste, for most of my life I actually went without any fennel at all. This purgatorial epoch, to which I now refer as the Bleak Years, ended when I ingested a sliver of Tuscany's official vegetable by fortuitous accident, mistaking it for a giant species of celery. Since that day it has been my policy to compensate for a lifelong finocchio deficit and to spread fennel awareness throughout the land. Bar Italia's salad was a brilliantly staged melodrama-on-a-plate. The Duchess of Fennel is deftly wooed by Reggiano, a rakish young cheese from Parma who lavishes her with scallions and olive oil. But wait! She is kidnaped by the jealous Count Fungus and his army of white mushrooms. A love triangle ensues. The play's denouement is violent yet mindful of natural order: Everybody dies, gobbled up by a cruel and beautiful goddess me.
The restaurant world itself is full of drama. Whenever established eateries expand or relocate, danger lurks. Who among us has not despaired when a favorite haunt goes down the crapper after moving to a nicer neighborhood or doubling its seating? This happens when a self-indulgent owner is either ignorant of or ceases to care about the doxa of his clientele. Happily for apostles of Bar Italia, which originally opened in 1983, Mengesha Yohannes is not that kind of owner. He has done an excellent job preserving the essence of the old place: It's still in Maryland Plaza, the food is still delicious, the service is still eccentric, and an updated but unhurried European atmosphere remains very much in evidence. Most of the changes, I am relieved to report, are purely cosmetic. The new interior, intimate and neighborhoody, is scarcely larger than before, but gone is the claustrophobia of old, thanks to high ceilings, bright paint and a picture window. Additional improvements: mezzanine seating from which you can spy on people below, spacious gender-specific bathrooms and a big-ass patio with its own bar, lots of elbow room and a gazebo. There's even talk of a late-night menu.
Meanwhile, back at dinner, our mussels arrive, luxuriating in a bath of fragrant hot broth. I eye them warily. Recently, while dining at our city's most multistarred restaurant, I was presented with a dish of mussels in which sand was inexplicably featured as a main ingredient. I am still picking my teeth. But Bar Italia restores my faith in the human ability to sufficiently divest a bivalve of its gravel; these mussels, diaphanous ampules of briny sweetness, surrender to the tongue without a trace of grit, and the excellent bread makes a fine edible sponge for the delicious court-bouillon.
Equally compelling is a grilled swordfish. This dish, like so much of the food at Bar Italia, is the very picture of simplicity. Uncontaminated by cloying sauces and branded with perfect cross-hatches, the steak is moist, barely pink in the middle and utterly toothsome. Though the accompanying greens and couscous could be warmer, a steaming side of sweet butternut squash is one of the most gratifying experiences I've had all summer.
Of our meat dishes, Babs' veal chop emerges as the favorite; one taste, and Tex and I commence begging for seconds like starving hounds. Glazed with a whisper of raspberry and perfectly medium-rare, the chop is the Platonic ideal of tenderness. It vanishes almost immediately.
My vegetarian accomplice Rena has selected eggplant fettucine, a dish I would recommend only to avid devotees of the Greek olive. A light red sauce is ably perfumed with onion, capers and ricotta, but an aggressive contingent of kalamatas bullies the eggplant into submission. Eggplant aficionados might be happier with the melanzane con ricotta, another triumph of simplicity. Slices of smoky eggplant encircle fluffy clouds of ricotta cheese and are served atop a pool of intense, absolutely scarlet tomato sauce. It is an arresting spectacle. Flavor-wise, there's nothing flamboyant about these three ingredients; it is an admirable balance of subtlety that makes this dish one of my favorite lunches.
But what about the bruschetta? In recognition of his brilliant insight, I am in the process of composing a lyric paean to our bossy waiter. Once again, Bar Italia's less-is-more approach works miracles. Crisp planks of grilled baguette are piled with roasted tomatoes and Parmesan and have visited the broiler just long enough to melt the cheese. The diced tomatoes are so abundant that they tumble off the bread like lemmings, causing Babs and Tex and I to step up our usual forkplay with aggressive thrusts and parries. The spoils of this skirmish are rich and smoky, the way the color red would taste if you could eat it for dinner the night the world is supposed to end.
BAR ITALIA, 13 Maryland Plaza, 361-7010. Hours: lunch, 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sun.; dinner: 5-10 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 5-10:30 p.m. Fri.-Sun.; closed Mon. Entrees: $11.95-$21.95.