Good Enough Gaspare's -- Doing The Right Thing For The Right Reasons

SOMETIMES IT IS WELL TO step back and note that not every restaurant is exceptional, every entree not a stunning surprise, every good, honest cook not a celebrated chef. Sometimes it is simply reassuring to note that in a world of mediocrities, "good" can be quite good enough.

A reassuring example of that is Gaspare's, 8051 Lake City Way N.E. It is a small Italian restaurant in a quaint triangular building. The dining room manages to look smaller than it actually is, perhaps because of its shape, yet holds 10 tables - most of which are usually filled, especially on weekend nights.

The reasons are simple and obvious. The food is ample, the sauces are fresh, the prices are modest, the wine is good, the bread is superb.

Going there is no special event and requires no more preparation and planning than a ready appetite, an hour or so free, and a $10 bill. In short, Gaspare's, an Italian restaurant run by a hard-working man from the island of Ischia, is like dozens of other neighborhood restaurants in and around the city. And we should all be eternally grateful for them.

They are where we go out to eat when we have neither the inclination nor the means to go out to dine.

The first time I wandered into Gaspare's, the door was open onto a sunny summer afternoon, but the place was closed. Gaspare Trani, who learned his trade while cooking aboard Sitmar cruise liners, was seated at a table near the kitchen with a couple of his friends. When I told him I just wanted to look at a menu, he invited me in, introduced me to a young Italian who had just arrived from Milan, and offered a glass of wine.

A large bowl of spaghetti was plunked in front of the newcomer, who smiled broadly. The immigrant ate fast; we sipped slowly. We finished at about the same time. We shook hands. I said: "Welcome to Seattle, land of instant friends," and left.

I didn't go back to Gaspare's until weeks later. I ordered a plate of Fettucine Bolognese ($7.95) and a glass of chianti. The menu describes the dish as being sauced with onion, celery, carrots, ground beef and tomato - which sounded about right.

Sauce Bolognese, or ragu, is generally conceded to be the Italian master sauce. It takes many ingredients, long hours of gentle simmering, and when it is done, has a creamy, rich and voluptuously meaty finish. The noted Italian cookbook author and teacher Marcella Hazan insists: "It must cook at the merest simmer for a long, long time. The minimum is 3 1/2 hours; five is better."

About twice a year I make it. Mainly I make it because I have yet to find a perfect bowl of it in Seattle (and Bologna is a long way off).

Alas, I still haven't found it locally. Gaspare's is good, but not great. Essentially his is a ground meat and vegetable melange in a bright, crisp tomato sauce. With a couple of slices of Italian country bread from La Panzanella, it was a pleasant, satisfying supper.

Trani makes his tomato sauces fresh each day. He starts with vine-ripened tomatoes, which he blanches, skins, crushes and simmers with a minimum of assertive seasonings.

Where does he get such tomatoes?

"From Rosella's Produce," he said. "They are always good."

The result is a clean, fruity sauce, but lacking in the heavier overtones of red pepper, garlic, basil and oregano that most of us have come to associate with Southern Italian red sauces.

A good start to the meal might be a plate of Saute di Vongole ($6.50), clams sauteed in their own juices with garlic, olive oil and lemon, or an Antipasto Misto, a mix of marinated, grilled vegetables in the Napoletano style (eggplant, red bell peppers, longitudinally sliced zucchini and mushrooms). I thought that ($5.95) was a bit steep for an antipasto that included no preserved meats, fish or cheese - but that is one of the few dishes at Gaspare's that could be deemed pricey.

Another good starter is pizza, especially if shared by two or three. Otherwise, consider the single-portion pizzas (priced from $6 to $9) a meal in themselves. I particularly liked the Pizza al Capricciosa ($7.95), with tomato sauce, mozzarella, artichoke hearts, olives and mushrooms.

There are 10 pasta dishes on the menu - and usually another four or five on a specialty board in the dining room. Prices for the menu pasta are modest, from $7 to $10. The specialty pastas are a couple of bucks higher, although I have been unable to figure why.

Some good choices: Penne Del Vesuvio (with garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, capers, mushrooms in a basic tomato sauce; $7.95); Spaghetti di Mare (this does not involve a female horse, but incorporates mussels, clams and squid in an olive oil-garlic-tomato sauce for $9.95).

I found the Lasagna Napoletana ($8.95) lacking in enough of the advertised layering ingredients - sausage, ricotta and mozzarella - although the pasta itself and the tomato sauce were fine. This is an individually assembled lasagna, not cut from a larger, baked assembly.

Fettucine al Pesto ($7.95) was a surprisingly creamy, and slightly bland version of this very fundamental dish. It needed more of the assertive flavors of basil and pinoli, and less of the cream and cheese.

The chicken dishes (al pesto, pizzaiola and limone) are priced at around $11. I enjoyed the Pollo al Limone ($10.95) best - lightly napped with capers, lemon juice, white wine and rosemary.

Desserts appear to be popular there, although I haven't tried any. I like dropping into Gaspare's for a one-course supper with a salad, bread and a glass of the house chianti, rather than a three- or four-course dinner.

It's a happy little restaurant, perhaps best symbolized by the stuffed cock pheasant mounted over the restroom door, with a paper Italian flag in its beak, fluttering in the wake of an electric fan.

GASPARE'S POLLO AL LIMONE 1 serving 1 boneless and skinless chicken breast half 1 tablespoon flour 1 tablespoon olive oil Pinch of rosemary 1/2 teaspoon drained capers Juice of 1 lemon wedge (about 2 teaspoons) About 2 tablespoons white wine 1 teaspoon butter Salt to taste Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Pound the chicken breast between sheets of plastic wrap until flat. Dredge in flour. 2. Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet. Saute the chicken for about 1 minute. Turn and add the rosemary, capers and lemon juice. 3. When the lemon has evaporated, add the wine. Cook for a minute and stir in the butter. Season with salt and pepper.

XX Gaspare's Ristorante Italiano, 8051 Lake City Way N.E. Southern Italian. Dinner $6 to $12, 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday; until 10:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday. Closed Monday. Beer, wine. Major credit cards; no checks. Nonsmoking only. No reservations. 524-3806.