If you've driven north up Interstate 5 sometime during the last 20 years and looked east on the stretch that parallels Morena Boulevard, then you've no doubt noticed Baci Ristorante. You've probably seen the big red sign above the restaurant, the one that catches your eye just before you pass that painted whale mural at the car dealership. Whether you've ever ventured off the freeway and into the restaurant is another story.
Morena Boulevard is not exactly a food mecca, though it does have a few nice spots. Still, there's not much going on down there at night, and I imagine there was even less action in the area when Baci first opened its doors in the late 1970s. Although Baci's location might be a bit puzzling, its longevity is no mystery. In a town where restaurants appear and then disappear before getting a chance to establish roots, Baci is a stalwart, still classic and elegant after all these years. It's a place with old-school charm, a mix of swank and comfort, that serves gratifyingly traditional Italian food that doesn't try to be flashy or trendy.
Baci is for happy occasions—anniversaries, birthdays or times when you find yourself with a little extra money to burn and want to be certain that you're not throwing your hard-earned dough down on a place that won't give you a full return. The restaurant is special for many locals, some of whom like sitting in one of the booths that line the cozy dining rooms while others prefer the elbow room of the not-quite-open-air patio that's outfitted in terracotta tile and painted a warm, sunny yellow. A couple of friends and I did it up there one recent evening, as a treat to celebrate the holidays and, well, because we'd rather sit around a table and talk and eat than do just about anything else on any night.
Two of us started off with Manhattans, a good drink to judge a bar by. They came with the perfect proportion of spirits, at least to our tastes. We sipped the cocktails while debating the menu options and plowed through the bread basket, filled with crisp wedges of a loaf that was lightly garlic-buttery and wholly delicious.
Most of the dishes at Baci are Northern Italian in origin, meaning less olive oil and tomato sauce and more butter, cream and cheese. Not everything is super-heavy though; there are lots of meat and seafood dishes that are tasty and not so over-the-top indulgent. I'm all about decadence, so I like starting with a half-portion of Baci's pasta, which runs from linguine with clams to penne in a salmon sauce. On this night, I chose the prosciutto-stuffed tortellini—huge pillowy rings of pasta, homey and rustic, under a blanket of sage-seasoned and parmesan-thickened cream. We also ordered the carpaccio appetizer, delicate slices of raw filet mignon, pounded paper-thin and served on a bed of arugula, capers and olives.
Ready for more liquid fortification, we confronted the intimidating wine list and managed to ferret out a Tuscan red that was both good and wallet-friendly. Our tuxedoed waiter looked so much like actor Tim Curry that I kept expecting him to break out into song and dance, but instead he was just lovely to us, attentive without being obtrusive and gracious even though we'd ordered the cheapest wine on the menu.
He ran through the night's specials, and I was immediately drawn to the braised lamb shank, which arrived on a platter still attached to its large leg bone, like a Neanderthal's fancy. The meat was stewed to sticky tenderness in red wine, tomato, stock and vegetables—a testament to the magic of slow cooking. My friend's osso bucco was similarly tender but a little less flavorful, though the saffron risotto underneath was nice. The dish that I'm still thinking about, though, is the swordfish steak, impossibly thick at four inches high, with a simple bread-crumb crust preparation combined with a gentle bake that resulted in the most succulent fish that has passed my lips in a long while. My friends and I are big into sharing, so we took a few bites of our meals and then swapped plates. I took a little extra time when that fish came my way.
The desserts at Baci are fine, but not memorable, although the whole experience is one to savor. Baci means “kisses” in Italian, and after your meal, you just might want to make out a little with this ristorante.
Baci Ristorante is located at 1955 Morena Blvd. in Bay Park. 619-275-2094.
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