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Originally published Friday, August 28, 2009 at 12:04 AM

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Restaurant review

There's personality plus at Bistro Baffi

Bistro Baffi in Burien has plenty of personality, thanks to chef/owner Michael Vujovich. He cooks from familiar Italian repertoire, but Seattle Times reviewer Providence Cicero found some menu items exceptional.

Special to The Seattle Times

Sample menu

Insalata al'gusto $8
Rigatoni Bolognese $12
Pollo alla parmigiana $16
Risotto con salmone $18
Spaghetti Pescatore $30

Bistro Baffi2.5 stars

Italian

15217 21st Ave. S.W.

Burien

206-244-0737

www.bistrobaffi.com

Reservations: Accepted.

Hours: Dinner 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays.

Prices: $$$ (Appetizers $6-$13; pasta and risotto $11-$30; entrees $16-$28.)

Drinks: Cocktails; wines predominantly from Northwest and European producers.

Parking: Free in lot.

Sound: Moderate.

Who should go: South-end diners seeking Mediterranean brio.

Credit cards: All major.

Access: No obstacles.

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When Michael Vujovich, chef and owner of 2-year-old Bistro Baffi, emerges from his kitchen, as he often does, it's with all the brio of a Commedia dell'Arte character. He's tall and rangy; his chef whites are speckled with his signature pink sauce, and his long arms gesture like a clock gone crazy. His fabulously twirled whiskers inspired the restaurant's name; baffi in Italian means mustache.

Bistro Baffi sits in the crux of a Burien strip mall between a hair salon and a Handi-mart, buffered from the parking lot by hefty planters brimming with blooms. The interior is ripe for romance, with pink marble tables and wainscoted, tomato-red walls covered with sunny depictions of coastal Montenegro, where Vujovich got his start in the restaurant business.

He cooks from a familiar Italian repertoire, but the restaurant's many regulars are drawn as much, I suspect, by the force of his personality and the ministrations of his engaging staff as by the quality of the food.

West Seattleites who know Vujovich from the Beach House Cafe turn up at Bistro Baffi and are greeted with bear hugs. He's a raconteur who lavishes compliments. "I like the way you eat!" he tells one table, clinking wine glasses all around. Carrying a candlelit tiramisu (it's terrific) he leads a chorus of "Happy Birthday."

He showed up at our table with apologies. They were out of a $32 Ripasso Valpolicella we had ordered. He insisted we have a 1999 Barolo for the same price (a fraction of what Barolo typically sells for). He was already pulling the cork, assuring us we would love it.

We didn't love it, but it was acceptable for the price. I noticed the same wine displayed on several tables. It's not on the list but on a subsequent visit our waiter mentioned it was a featured bottle, quoting a price of $48.

Wild king salmon is a frequent special. A waiter paraded a raw fillet around the room on a plate rimmed with slices of red and yellow pepper, summer squash, eggplant and baby bok choy. We took the bait. The carefully broiled fish dressed simply with wine, capers and a touch of lemon was a joy. But the vegetables, doused with olive oil, were so indifferently cooked some were nearly raw. The never-mentioned price tag: $35.

That's a jump even from the menu's top-price entree, a somewhat chewy veal piccata ($28), similarly sauced but with a surfeit of lemon juice. And it's nearly twice the price of a dull, sage-deprived chicken saltimbocca ($17).

Bistecca Romana was well worth its $25 tariff. Ignore the menu description that says "thin sautéed beef tenderloin." The impressive prosciutto-wrapped fillet I enjoyed was a good 2 inches thick, cooked precisely medium-rare and moistened with a red-wine pan sauce. But whole garlic cloves scattered among the standard-issue veggies were, like the eggplant and peppers, far from cooked.

Many customers opt for salad and pasta. Insalata al'gusto was fresh and lovely: tender lettuces ringed with ripe pear and Roma tomato, sprinkled with toasted pecans, cranberries and sweet Gorgonzola, and glistening with balsamic vinaigrette.

Several pastas and risottos incorporate the house signature "spicy pink sauce," a frothy blend of tomatoes, champagne and cream, zingy with herbs and spice. But an overdose of pink sauce one evening resulted in risotto so soupy the scallops were practically bobbing.

Our party of three decided to share spaghetti pescatore, but Vujovich thought differently. He personally delivered not one but three brimming bowls. "You each must have your own," he decreed. "I divided it so you wouldn't fight over it."

And we might have. It was sensational, with firm noodles tucked beneath a profusion of clams, mussels, bits of fin fish and a fat prawn, all of it drenched in a wine-rich tomato sauce, heady with garlic and herbs, packing just enough peppery heat.

We were still slurping when the chef reappeared. "I just wanted to see your happy faces." I think he really meant it. But he was eyeing the seafood, not us.

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com

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