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Second look at a local original


Trend starters are often not trend setters. David Bowie and Alice Cooper didn't invent Glam Rock, but has anyone heard of the New York Dolls?

I'm thinking about "gourmet" pizzas, those individual-sized, thin-crusted pies topped with everything from mango chutney to truffles. The trend-setter in our area might have been Ciao, and places like Benucci's have really cashed in. More recently, Veneto has done good and well with its small, wood-fired approach.

But John Oliveri will tell you he started the whole thing back in 1988 at Alexi's on Monroe Avenue. That jibes with my memory. Marwan el-Bejjani, who managed Aladdin's back then, hipped me to the guy making cool little pizzas in a hole next door. It was a favorite spot for my wife and me early in our marriage.

Things went well, Oliveri hired Marwan, they moved into a renovated space down the street, and Alexi's boomed. Then a series of most unfortunate events --- even a fire, you Baudelaire orphan fans --- beat Oliveri down and finally left him broke in 1996.

Two years later, he mustered the intestinal fortitude to try again --- people who don't appreciate the entrepreneurial spirit should meditate on this --- and opened another pizza and pasta spot, Café Fresco on Empire Boulevard. But the café approach wasn't well-suited to the new location, so Oliveri expanded, adding a bar and more meat and seafood dishes. It's enough of a hit that I found it completely packed on a Tuesday evening.

It's easy to see why. The success is built on what John Oliveri knows and does best: bold-flavored pizzas, salads, and starters all made fresh. Alexi's fans will know much of the menu. The pizza Greca, with garlic, pesto and tomato sauces (light), olives, roasted red peppers, feta, and spices, is back and better than ever ($8.95).

The crusts are thin, and just crisp on the bottom (though the restaurant served a softer crust for our kids). Strong Mediterranean flavors abound, with artichokes, roasted peppers, olives, or feta involved in almost every pie. I particularly like some of the pies without tomato sauces, like the formaggio with pesto, five cheese, and spices ($8.50); the verde, with pesto, escarole, and cheeses ($8.25); and the bianca, with pesto, garlic, and peppers ($7.95).

At lunch, an additional page on the menu offers panini and calzones. The panini section includes deals like meatballs, sauce, and cheese for a trifling $4.95, and slightly fancier fare such as grilled rib-eye steak topped with peppers, onions, and mushrooms sautéed in marsala ($6.95).

The outlandishly large calzones are just outstanding. Oliveri's dough lends itself particularly well to this use; the calzones have a thin and crisp outer crust, and a light and delicious inner bread. One companion complained of the sausage and pepperoni inside his calzone being a bit cool, but my spinach and ricotta version was near perfect. All are $5.95, and plenty to serve as your main meal of the day.

Fresco also has a large selection of pastas, from a simple spaghetti with olive oil and garlic ($7.50) to stuffed pastas like manicotti ($9.75) and ravioli ($8.50). Few of Oliveri's dishes swim in red sauce, a welcome difference from many local Italian joints. Add a freshly cut romaine salad with homemade dressing to pizza or pasta for $2.25 (vinaigrette was good albeit over-abundant).

The expanded dinner menu adds several meat (mostly veal), chicken, and fish dishes. Oliveri did this to serve the clientele in the new location, who are used to more traditional Italian dinner fare. The dishes are pricier ($12.95 to $17.95), again strongly flavored, and not quite as successful as the pizzas and pastas (the obviously happy crowds clearly differ with me on this). Dinners include a side pasta and salad.

Veal rosamarino wasn't as tender as it might have been, and the artichoke-kalamata olive-red pepper-feta combo overwhelmed the rosemary a bit ($17.95). My wife's eggplant parmigiana, through, was excellent, with thick pieces of eggplant retaining flavor and texture without bitterness, as well as a rich sauce and high-quality mozzarella. It was a meal for her and another for me two days later ($12.95).

Fresco has that carefully remodeled look, but is small enough to retain some individual character. John Oliveri greets customers personally, and is often in the dining room. His servers are friendly, and many have accents, which helps establish a mood (no mean feat in a Penfield strip mall). Families with feel welcome if not encouraged, and should be warned that food will not come very quickly. It's an outstanding lunch destination, and a decent one for dinner. And if you dig gourmet pizzas, you should try Rochester's original.

Fresco Italian Cuisine, 1759 Empire Boulevard, 787-6840. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Correcting ourselves

Restaurant 2 Vine's Jerry Serafine and Barry Kucker of Fare Game Foods were both perplexed by my having said, "I prefer foie gras uncooked," in my review of Bay Tree Cuisine

There were two mistakes, one dumb and the other embarrassing, in that short phrase. First, I was assuming I was eating seared pâté de fois gras, and was trying to say that I like plain pâté better. Had I said that, what I meant would have been clear, and the astute reader would have realized I didn't know what I was eating, which was not pâté at all, but seared goose liver (just "fois gras," no "pâté de" involved).

I always appreciate it when folks like Jerry and Barry help correct my Philistine ways. For the record, I do prefer pâté de fois gras to seared fois gras. And before I get more e-mail, yes, I know that "fois gras," is "fat liver," literally; it is most often used, however, to denote liver of a goose raised in a particularly unsavory manner.