Friday, September 25, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Veteran Chefs Pour Skill Into LA Buca

----------------------------------------------------------- XXX Ristorante La Buca, 102 Cherry St. Southern Italian. Lunch ($5 to $8) 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinner (entrees $12 to $16) 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; until midnight, Friday, Saturday; Sunday 5 to 10:30 p.m. Wine, beer. Major credit cards. Nonsmoking area. Reservations: 343-9517. -----------------------------------------------------------

The space is improbable, a cavernous series of alcoves under Pioneer Square where the thespians of the Skid Road Theater once strutted. "La Buca" means the pit. Or the hole.

It is now the place where Luigi dwells.

Luigi DeNunzio, possibly the most superb headwaiter and dining room manager in Seattle, has shifted his skills - and severed his relationship - from Al Boccalino, a few blocks away. In the process he acquired a new partner, Rafe Calise, the flamboyant founder of Salute! and La Dolce Vita.

A pair of southern Italians, they set up a new shop a couple of weeks ago that promises to be among the very best ethnic kitchens in the city and a highly successful bistro, if the sometimes shabby sociology of the district doesn't conspire against them.

I rarely go to a restaurant this soon after an opening. But "Raffaele e Luigi," as the menu billing lists them, are seasoned veterans of the trade. They knew what they were up to before the last coat of muted red-plum paint was applied to the subterranean

arches of their Mediterranean venture. But, once I heard the wild mushroom risotto was beyond belief, I went.

I'm glad I did.

"Nothing complicated," said DeNunzio with an understated shrug. "Just the basics."

Like: Mezzo Pollo Grigliato Con Fagioli Stufati ($12.95).

Basically, uncomplicatedly, it's a boned half of grilled chicken, elegantly seasoned with fresh aromatic herbs and served over a bed of plump canellini white beans and alongside a steaming rectangle of cut polenta with a kiss of melted imported cheese. But what a grilled chicken: moist, incredibly tender, savory with garlic, basil, rosemary, ground pepper and parsley. Beans to let linger in the mouth. Polenta so good, you think it should have been saved for dessert.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. You start with a basket of Ciro Pascuito's now famous La Panzanella country loaf Italian bread, some butter (if you want it) and a tub of pureed beans melded with mellow roasted garlic and flecked with rosemary.

("It's a change of pace from olive oil," Luigi noted.)

It is also addictive, and a perfect complement to the rustic, dense bread - as is a glass of the house chianti, Fattoria Castelvecchio ($3.50), a soft, pleasant and fruity wine.

Appetizers, which are presented in large bowls on a peeled pine table in the center of the dining room, change daily. But you can usually find Sicilian style Calamari, with pine nuts, raisins, garlic and grilled tomato sections ($6), and sauteed wild mushrooms with garlic and fresh mint ($6.95).

Don't overlook the "Gatto" of leftover pasta mixed with spinach, coppa and fontina cheese, packed in a mold, baked and sliced. It's served under a scoop of a wonderfully fresh marinara sauce. Occasionally, the most basic southern Italian appetizer of them all is available: braised escarole, "slowly stewed" with olive oil, red chilie peppers and whole roasted garlic, with an added splash of extra virgin oil oil.

"The essence of the South of Italy, eh?" the host murmured.

The risottos at La Buca are definitive - and creative. The Risotto del Bosco ($9.95), arborio rice with wild mushrooms and fresh rosemary, is set off by an incongruous, but delightful, blueberry puree.

Risotto di Mare (also $9.95) combines a very creamy rice base with a heady (and "wonderfully brothy," said a friend) mix of squid, mussels, clams, shrimp and chunks of fish. With the exception of the shrimp, which were a trifle overcooked, all of the other seafoods were tender perfection and the entire dish was accented with a subtle touch of saffron. It was accompanied with sliced fresh tomatoes and leaves of fresh basil.

"What a great start to a meal," commented the Research Assistant, licking a pinkie. "That wasn't a dish, it was a lyric."

Almost as good - and a nice alternative to the usual salad - was the Fagiolini con la Pancetta e Erba Cipollina ($4.50), small, fresh green beans, sauteed with small squares of crisp pancetta (ham) and shallots in a warm, delicate, creamy gorgonzola dressing.

Main courses range from $11.95 for a baked breast of chicken in bread crumbs, topped with a ragout of mixed wild mushrooms, to $15.95 for the saddle of fresh Ellensberg lamb, roasted with rosemary, figs, port wine and gorgonzola cheese.

The lamb was served medium rare, six half-inch thick slices from the loin, with savory wedges of fig poached in the port wine sauce. They melded beautifully with the lamb, and the infusion of gorgonzola provided a needed edge, a "bite," to the smooth, slightly sweet sauce.

La Buca's tira misu, liqueur-soaked lady fingers with mascarpone, chocolate, espresso, etc., is the best I have tasted - anywhere. In the single-word evaluation of the Research Assistant: "Wow."

(Copyright, 1992, John Hinterberger. All rights reserved.)

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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