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Heady aromas and the taste for salt

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It's interesting how experience in one business translates into behavior in another. Ristorante Grappa owner Anthony Valenti ran a DJ business for two decades before trying his hand at a restaurant. Good DJs have a sixth sense for pleasing people. Valenti brings that quality to being a restaurateur, and it's a perfect fit. He greets you cordially and pays attention to the dining room during the meal, and his staff is excellent.

There is more to like than the feel. Grappa's food is a notch better than the Italian restaurant norm, but not so expensive that your expectations go through the roof. Dr. Mike Bobrow and I started our meal with a generous $9 portion of posillipo, clams and mussels in a yummy garlic and white wine broth. It was salty in a complementary way (more on saltiness later).

Eight dollars scored four huge tubes of calamari, lightly breaded and grilled with a lemony vinaigrette. This is a dish for squid lovers, not fried-food dilettantes; the squid isn't rubbery, but there is a lot of it, so be sure that's what you want (or go with the fried calamari instead).

A tomato-and-onion soup (broth-based, not creamy) was deliciously, organically sweet, but a bit too salty. My taste for salt has increased as I've aged, and I wonder why some things (red meats, that posillipo, potatoes) seem so right with salt as a primary flavor while in others (like this soup) the salt seems distracting. Hard to say, but clearly chef Eric Eiseline does like his salt. You be the judge.

Pastas range in price from $12 to $19 (the seafood options). We tried a side of penne with Eiseline's rosa sauce, a dynamite marinara mixed a bit of cream. It was a highlight, and made us wish we'd ordered a full pasta dish. We did have the risotto special, with five cheeses and a healthy hand of basil, oregano, and especially sage. This was another salty dish, but the texture of the risotto was spot on, creamy and nutty without a crunch, and the sage gave it a heady aromatic character. Grilled shrimp skewered on rosemary twigs and jazzed with old bay came on the side.

Grappa is an eau de vie made from grape residue after winemaking. And Grappa, the restaurant, does serve several kinds (Mike tried an almond-scented one and a strong but neutral-smelling variety). Eiseline features it in veal grappa, veal sautéed in pancetta and herbs then covered in a dense reduction of grappa and sun-dried cherries ($18). The sauce is complex and intense, particularly good over the roasted potatoes on the side. The veal itself wasn't quite fork-tender, though.

The service for our dinner at Grappa was outstanding. Our waitress was informative and had fun with us without being flirtatious. Desserts made by Miche Chichester included an airy lemon meltaway cake and cannoli with super-flaky crust (if a slightly dense filling). Espresso was surprisingly good, full-flavored with little bitterness.

Lunch was a more mixed experience. Soup did not arrive piping hot, a serious issue for Hot Soup Fascists like my companion, Isobel Neuberger. Greens and beans, also tepid, were decent if uninspiring.

Having sampled many Italian assorted subs recently, I really appreciated the Italian trio sandwich, with Genoa salami, sopressata, and coppicola ($8 with roasted potatoes or salad). It was a cut above in several respects: the quality of the meats, excellent greens, a good tomato, freshly cut onion, shredded parmesan, and great, toasted bread. A bit on the pricey side, but it delivered on quality.

I found dinner better than lunch at Grappa, but I enjoyed my dinner enough to think the lunch experience might just have been bad luck. Anthony Valenti has crafted a pleasant place to be, and he seems to have infused his staff with his personal style of service. In addition to the regular menus, Valenti also offers occasional wine dinners, with the next coming on December 12 ($75; call for details). The word of mouth on Grappa is excellent, and it's a welcome alternative in the growing area of local higher-end Italian fare.

Ristorante Grappa, 145 North Main Street, Fairport, 377-0240. Hours: lunch Tuesday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner Tuesday to Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 10 p.m., Sunday 4 to 8 p.m.


Food tip

News from the Finger Lakes: Ventosa Vineyards opened last month on the northeast end of Seneca Lake, across 96A from the Rose Hill Mansion (315-719-0000). The Tuscan-style tasting room has an informal restaurant serving panini, soup, and salad. Dano's Heuriger on Seneca is a new restaurant just south of Ovid and Lodi, which features Viennese food in an ultra modern building (607-582-7555). Photos and menus are at www.SavorLife.com under The Grapevine.

--- Michael Warren Thomas

Michael Warren Thomas can be heard weekends on WYSL 1040 AM.

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