Restaurant Review - Rustic pizza

With a thin crust, generous ingredients and bargain price, Baraonda's pies are the real deal

I wouldn't order this again, said my friend of his disappointing ravioli and an equally disappointing risotto. "But don't write anything bad about this place. I like these guys. I want them to stay."?I understand completely. I, too, want Baraonda to stay. I also want the kitchen to recognize what it does best and stick to it. That would be pizza.

What, after all, could be more pleasant than sitting in Baraonda's long, narrow dining room as the aromas emanating from the wood-burning pizza oven drift through the air? The small tables are cozy enough, given that they are barely large enough for two. The dark wood's aged appearance only enhances that mellow feeling.

An even better spot for appreciating the scents is the short counter right in front of the oven, which also presents a ringside view of the pizza-making action. Sitting here, you can see the golden flames licking the logs deep in the oven's heart.

Rustic touches — rough-textured walls, exposed brick, dark wood floors, hammered copper finishes — contrast with sleek floor-to-ceiling windows that open onto a patio on Baraonda's Third Street side. Altogether it's a cheerful, comfortable atmosphere.

Baraonda's menu has something of a split personality, too. The most successful dishes are those that fit the decidedly Tuscan-influenced aspects of the informal surroundings: simple pastas and the wonderful, thin-crust pizzas. When the kitchen composes things — notably, the aforementioned daily ravioli and risotto — the results are not as harmonious.

Let's get these out of the way at the outset so we can concentrate on what does work here. The ravioli — smoked chicken and ricotta in this instance — illustrates what I am talking about. There was nothing wrong with the ingredients, really. But the chicken's smoky flavor overwhelmed the tender pasta and made the ricotta a touch bitter.

Another odd combination — easily removed by diners, although I hope the kitchen wakes up and dumps these soon — is the wide, dry carrot slices on the salads. Like carrot curls, only flat, they add nothing to either the appearance or the flavor of an otherwise lovely plate of mixed bitter field greens dressed with balsamic vinaigrette.

In addition to the ravioli, risotto and fish, soup and carpaccio are changing daily specials. I can live without the beef carpaccio, which should be much more thinly sliced than the carpaccio del giorno that is frequently offered here. But a recent mushroom potato soup was oh-so-satisfying — both the idea of it and the balance in the primary flavors.

If, on the other hand, you crave solid and crunchy more than chunky or creamy to begin a meal, the deep-fried calamari is the answer. I have not spied on the kitchen, but from the taste of them, I would bet these morsels are freshly double-fried, rather than fried and held. They stay hotter and crisper longer.

If you try only one thing at Baraonda, though, make it one of the pizzas. There are four choices at lunch and a generous 15 possibilities at dinner. Luckily, the simple standard margherita (tomato, mozzarella and basil) shows up on both menus, as does the pollo (tomato, chicken, mozzarella), a verdura (with eggplant at lunch, zucchini and broccoli at dinner) and the cheese lover's quattro formaggi (gorgonzola, mozzarella, parmiggiano, provolone).

More choices from the dinner roster: blanca with mozzarella, olives, goat cheese and parmiggiano; romana with tomatoes, olive oil, capers, anchovies and oregano; Napoletana with tomatoes, mozzarella, anchovies, marinara and oregano; fra diavolo with spicy salami, tomatoes and mozzarella; funghi with tomatoes, mushrooms and mozzarella; prosciutto with tomatoes, Parma ham, mozzarella, arugola and parmiggiano; rustica with sliced tomatoes, fontina, mushrooms, olives and garlic; and salmone with sour cream, tomato sauce and smoked salmon.

No matter what the ingredients, the pizzas shine, thanks to a light hand with the toppings and tomato sauce and the thinner-than-thin crust. If you sit at the counter you can see this, but even if you can't see it, you will taste the results of the hand stretching and tossing of the dough and the rapid-fire tossing on of cheeses or olives or salmon and so forth.

The pizzas are more than a meal for one, but if you are famished, you might want to precede the pizza with the antipasto misto (prosciutto, salami, mortadella and roasted red peppers set off by arugola) or with any of the salads. When the tomatoes are good, caprese (tomato, mozzarella and basil) cannot be topped. Otherwise, rucola (arugola and parmiggiano with lemon vinaigrette) is lighter than the Caesar.

Pastas are simple, as they should be. Curiously, the spaghetti al pomodoro at lunch (with tomato sauce and basil) is better than the same dish at dinner, when chunks of mozzarella are melted into the spaghetti.

A note about the prices here. More than any restaurant I can recall visiting recently, Baraonda prices its dishes in relation to the ingredients. That makes everything on the menu a good value, from the modestly priced $9 bowl of spaghetti to the market-priced fish of the day.