Starters ($8-$15) are impressive. Were it not for decorum's sake I would have picked up the bowl and drank what remained of the sauce after finishing the clams and mussels steamed with Pernod, tomatoes and sausage. And I did, despite decorum's sake, pick out every last little piece of sausage with my tiny clam fork. The calamari, my litmus test for Italian restaurants, was superb. Lightly breaded and pan-seared, tossed with red cabbage and served on a pool of roasted tomato coulis, the dish had all the familiar flavors of classic calamari fritti, but the cabbage provided a welcome change of texture, chili-pepper flakes gave a touch of heat, and the coulis was a lovely alternative to marinara sauce. Salads ($6-$11) are all attractive, but I chose the Caesar Roulade, hearts of romaine stuffed with goat cheese, topped with Caesar dressing and served with an ancho-parmesan tuille. It was as rich as it was flavorful, and may have been a little too much were the creamy goat cheese and the crisp romaine not so evenly layered.
Larger courses include pizzas ($11-$13), pastas ($13-$25) and a list of meat, chicken and seafood entrees ($24-$33). The chicken pesto pizza with tender chunks of grilled chicken, fresh pesto, toasted pine nuts and a blend of Fontina and Asiago cheeses had great flavor and a nice, chewy crust. The risotto of the day, featuring sausage and red peppers, was tasty if not a little monotonous. But to be fair, I often feel that way about risotto. The only slight disappointment was the braised boneless beef short ribs. The meat itself had a nice crispiness on the outside and was perfectly cooked. The dish overall, though, was a bit busy. Plated with Madeira demi reduction, beet mousse and saffron cauliflower, too many powerful flavors were competing for attention. And the hazelnut-paprika mashed potatoes were whipped into a nice consistency, but again the hazelnut and the paprika seemed to work against each other. I wouldn't, however, change a thing about the bacon chip on top. I'd eat a bag of those.
Desserts, like everything else on the menu, are largely a modern take on Italian favorites - cannoli, tiramisu, crème brûlée -made in-house by a full-time pastry chef.
Besides the cuisine and overall feel of the restaurant, Staccato stands out from Bend's high-end crowd in another important respect. Not only is it open all week (people who can't cook need to eat on Sundays and Mondays, too), it also has a new late-night menu daily. I'm not sure whether it's because Bend's restaurants close so early that diners have turned into early birds or whether diners don't show up after 9 p.m. so restaurants don't bother to stay open, but either way, there are few dining options for night owls. The brewpubs are always a good standby as are bar-restaurants like the Astro Lounge and Bo Restobar, but it's nice to have an alternative downtown. No longer serving brunch, Staccato is now fully focused on evening. The lively bar and late-night menu of mostly salads, soups and pastas will hopefully prove that if you stay open, they will come.
Staccato at the Firehall
5 NW Minnesota Ave., 312-3100
Happy hour, starting at 4 p.m. (Mon.-Sat.); dinner daily, starting at 5:30 p.m. (5 p.m. on Sun.); late-night menu, 9 p.m.-close.