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Mention feng shui to someone who's never heard of it, and you'll most likely get a "Gesundheit" in return. Discuss feng shui with an interior designer, and you'll receive one of two responses: an enthusiastic nod of recognition or a sigh of exasperation.
The ancient Chinese art of placement, feng shui is a design philosophy that has, like alternative medicine, grown in popularity over the last few years. Simply put, the basic premise of feng shui is to arrange your living or working area in such a way that the flow of life, or chi, is balanced and unrestricted. Too little chi, and you're weak and depressed as a result. Too much chi, and you're stressed and confused.
Proponents of this intuitive science believe that the proper use of chi can change your life. But like herbal remedies and aromatherapy, a lot of it, to me, sounds like a load of bunk. Still, I couldn't help recalling the tenets of feng shui when I stepped into Pazzo, the month-old Mediterranean restaurant on Harrison Street in downtown Hollywood.
Pazzo, which means "crazy" in Italian, is the perfect example of excess chi. The 85-seat eatery's decor is such a riotous mix of patterns and colors, a feng shui expert would no doubt hyperventilate on the spot. I appreciated the chaos. Admittedly I'm a slob who breaks a feng shui cardinal rule every time I wedge my way into my overcrowded office to write: I sit with my back to the door, abdicating my power. But like it or not, Pazzo's uniqueness is refreshing.
Give credit to proprietor Jennifer Corbo, for whom decor came first, the menu second. She approached the design issue in the same way she puts together clothing ensembles. "I never buy an outfit," she explains. "I buy separates and make my own design." She did have some help. Marty Salkeld, an artist associated with the Faux Real Gallery in Hollywood, swirled the bar and tabletops with Art Deco tones of aqua, pink, purple, and green. The yellow seats on the wrought iron chairs and the navy blue on the walls are among the only solids in the room. Meanwhile, Mediterranean blue tiled floors, columns tiled in brilliant scarlet, metallic-rimmed mirrors, and a graduated ceiling of animal prints done in primary hues have chi bouncing around like a racquetball.
The most interesting design elements are in the restrooms. In the men's room, Salkeld created an under-the-sea atmosphere, with fish over the urinal and sink and a mural of mermaid on the wall. In the ladies' room, she painted two complete nudes, an homage to Botero, a Colombian artist who distorts the female form by way of exaggeration. The staff encourages both sexes to view the artwork (as long as the restrooms are unoccupied), but parents might want to keep prepubescent kids away from the water fountain, unless they're prepared to explain pubic hair during dinner.
The downside of so much decorative life force is that it sometimes overwhelms chef Nelson Betances' efforts. We simply didn't get the same charge from the fare as we did from the decor. Nancy SantoPietro, who wrote "Color and the Chakra System" in the Feng Shui Anthology, would probably argue that the hues of the food weren't strong enough. Feng shui philosophy maintains that the vibrations emitted by the seven colors of the rainbow correspond to the body's energy centers, called chakras (the keepers of chi). Red, for instance, stands for the ability to feed one's self. So the faded rubies of Pazzo's signature appetizer, roasted radicchio in prosciutto di Parma, must have kept me from liking the dish. I don't think so. Four bunches of the red chicory lettuce were wrapped with thinly sliced ham that was, quite simply, burnt, and the tangy balsamic-vinegar sauce, touched with butter, did nothing to alleviate the problem.
Chunky tomato sauce, another source of survivalist red, perked up a second starter, the Moroccan cigars. Inside a crunchy phyllo dough was a ground-spinach filling mixed with feta and ricotta cheeses, which without the marinara were somewhat bland. Reds also dominated a pasta entree, penne Davide, which was strewn with roasted, slightly bitter radicchio and intensely sweet, oven-dried tomatoes. Helping out the dish were juicy, boneless pieces of sauteed chicken and rich goat cheese. But the homemade pesto sauce tasted mostly like olive oil.
In feng shui, yellow is associated with willpower, which helps a person move toward his or her goals. One of our goals was to dismantle a grilled-vegetable Napoleon. While the vegetables -- yellow squash, eggplant, zucchini, and peppers -- had a pleasant aroma, they were a little bland. The layers of soft bufala di mozzarella were the high point of the dish. Yellow is also associated with the ability to reason, which is how we decided a polenta side dish was too salty. The grilled cornmeal triangles were spiked to the point of excess with rosemary, minced roasted peppers, and Parmesan cheese. Otherwise the dish would have been a crisp delight.
The polenta accompanied a main course of swordfish steak perched over half a dozen small shrimp and a bed of spinach sauteed with Pernod. The licorice flavor was a bit too intense, but even worse was the arid, utterly botched swordfish. Brightening the dish somewhat was the fresh spinach, but I couldn't tell you why, exactly. All I know is that, in chakra-speak, green stands for the unconditional love that unites all living things.
We definitely did not love the spinach salad, mostly because its warm sherry dressing had no depth and couldn't stick to the leaves. Otherwise the green leaves were tender and sweet. Strips of pancetta (Italian bacon), grilled portobello mushrooms, roasted peppers, crumbled Gorgonzola, and chopped walnuts added textural contrasts. We requested some balsamic vinegar to counter the oily dressing.
Technically, black and white aren't colors, so they don't correspond to specific chakras. But at the colorful Pazzo, the colorless food items were the best prepared. Blackened mahi-mahi, for example, was not as spicy as we'd requested, but it was flaky and moist. Looking something like a tortilla, the fillet was wrapped with spinach and mayonnaise in a roasted garlic lavash, and a pleasant salad comprised of couscous and barley was served on the side.
Pizza was undeniably the primo choice. Betances is great with pizza dough, and these beauties, blanketed with virgin-white mozzarella (or in some cases, blue-veined Gorgonzola), are every New Yorker's thin-crust dream. Pazzo offers about ten different pies in two sizes (personal and medium), including a special pizza of the evening. The Fantasia, topped with chicken and oven-dried tomatoes, was delicate and delicious. The pizza dough also served as a flatbread, triangles of which were provided at the beginning of the meal with a pungent tapenade (black olive dip).
The chi provided by the pizza fell off again with dessert. A wedge of grasshopper pie -- mint-chocolate chip ice cream on a chocolate-cookie crust -- was filled with icy shards.
In general, however, we felt positive about Pazzo. The service staff was friendly and professional, and the decor -- as chaotic as it might be for feng shui enthusiasts -- was stimulating. If only the same could be said for most of the dishes. As much as Corbo likes to mix and match when it comes to dressing herself, all of the elements of a restaurant, from decor to dessert, need to match -- if not in style, at least in intensity.
Pazzo. 2032 Harrison St., Hollywood, 954-923-0107. Open for lunch and dinner daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.
Blackened mahi-mahi sandwich