Caffé Pascucci at Express Avenue serves a big array of coffee-based desserts besides pizzas and pastas

I went through an unfortunate bread making phase a while back. Inspired by the whole Domestic Goddess bubble, I took to browsing the Internet for all kinds of retro-recipes and ruining my manicures by wrestling dough. I bring it up because that's when I learnt that inspired cooking is as much about restraint as it is about imagination.

Take my basil bread, thoughts of which still make me wake up at night screaming. As the Black Eyed Peas thudded in the background I put a cheery fistful of basil into the dough and worked it in, taking deep content breaths. It came out of the oven looking like a cover model for a baking magazine. But tasted like headache balm. The cheap kind that makes your eyes water and forehead burn. Which brings me to lesson two: beautiful food, like beautiful people, can make all kinds of promises it has no intention of keeping.

Caffé Pascucci, newly opened at Express Avenue, starts off with many advantages. It's a large, airy space lit by natural sunlight. As part of a popular Italian chain, it's got the advantage of sophisticated equipment and experienced know-how. And it serves easy, popular food — pizzas, pastas and a colourful range of coffees.

However, when we walk in for lunch it's empty except for two statuesque ladies, wrapped in elegant saris and diamonds, disdainfully eating ice cream. As they rise, they tell the visibly nervous manager the restaurant has a ‘long way to go' before they majestically sail away. We settle at a table anyway, and ask for a menu.

The Café's Achilles heel quickly becomes evident. Good restaurants are places with a reverence for details. Here the staff is so laidback they might as well grow Rastafarian hair and drink pinacoladas under the espresso machines. Three of them stand at the door, presumably discussing the politics of pizza. One wanders around with a remote control switching between Music Television and a cricket match, which he watches with slack-jawed fascination. Another slouches about with an electric fly swatter like a contemporary dragon-slaying knight in shining armour.

To be fair, our waiter, ‘Apam' is perky and sincere. He sets down our Greek salad with a flourish. Made with deliciously crunchy lettuce interspersed with juicy tomato chunks, cucumber, olives and onion rings, it's not just tasty but also exciting. We play ‘find the feta' with it, adjusting our glasses and meticulously turning over lettuce leaves to discover miniscule chunks of the cheese peering out bashfully.

The thin crust pizza's simple and tasty. It's layered with a thin tomato paste, ham and a generous sheet of bubbling cheese. A clever amalgamation of popular flavours, it's lifted by bursts of sharp feta, spiked through the mozzarella. Unfortunately the gnocchi, is completely overwhelmed by herbs. In fact, it tastes frighteningly similar to my basil bread: loud, brash and shrill. The recipe can, of course, be easily fixed. The kitchen just needs to be less heavy handed.

Caffé Pascucci has a huge array of coffee and coffee-based desserts — the biggest I've seen on a city menu so far. Using an array of flavourings, from fruits, chocolate, syrups, biscuits and generous lashings of yoghurt and whipped cream, they make all kinds of pretty concoctions.

We try the yoghurt cappuccino, which arrives looking like a Swiss mountain in winter. Digging through the snowy peaks of whipped cream, you hit cool yoghurt, balancing on a steaming shot of fragrant espresso. Since we don't want to become the size of the Titanic, we scoop out all the cream. It's not much of a sacrifice since it's topped with a flat berry-wannabe syrup. The yoghurt's much nicer, if a little too sweet. However, paired with the strong coffee, it works quite well.

The best part is the bill. All this for about Rs. 600, which is remarkably reasonable given how expensive restaurants of this genre generally are. Especially if you take into account the fact that you get a personal knight in shining plastic to guard you from foolhardy mosquitoes while you eat.

Caffé Pascucci (ph: 28464499) is at Express Avenue, Whites Road.

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