"RED IS ALWAYS a good color for restaurants, and bordellos of course," remarks R., my dining companion, as we sit down at a table for two on the back deck of Madame K's in Ballard. This narrow, hole-in-the-wall restaurant space has gone through several incarnations, most of them burdened with themes that didn't catch fire. But Madame K's has a theme that fits in well with the surrounding buildings of Ballard's historic district. Research has proven that in the 1800s, the rooms upstairs featured girls! girls! girls!, and downstairs, Kirsten Burt, otherwise known as Madame K, has tried to resurrect a sympathetic aura from those days of yore, beginning with the decor: blood-red walls where larger-than-life painted saloon girls mince coyly. The space is haphazardly decorated with kitchen and bordello paraphernalia, giving it a warm, sensuous character, and proving that the combination of food and sex is a theme that can easily entice the public.

As our waitress lights not one, but two candles for us, it becomes clear that the back deck especially is all about romance and feeling good. At Madame K's, you can truly relax and enjoy yourself. The atmosphere is easy and the waitress is carefree. She wants you to have a good time but she isn't concerned that you won't. Frank Sinatra croons softly as we sample a bottle of Caliterra Merlot from Chile ($13.00) and find it quite adequate, served in delightful bistro-y glasses.

The menu however, is a seriously disconcerting experience. The clumsily written descriptions of pizza and pasta are entirely at odds with the romantic ambiance and tasteful touches exhibited everywhere, from the wine glasses to the music. Ever perceptive, R. declares that they obviously don't understand the importance of good prose. He's right; all three pages resound with a coarse cry of over-familiarity and weird bravado. Rosemary and Garlic Breadsticks: "Ya know ya want some!" Or, U Betcha Bruschetta: "We like it 'cause it looks pretty. It's red and green!" Because of this blatant lack of subtlety, and the fear of getting too full too fast, we decide to move straight to the main course.

The warbling of Louis Armstrong replaces Sinatra, and R. notices with admiration the graceful way our waitress brings out the salads (included with our main courses), while cradling the pepper grinder in her supple, young armpit. A decent Caesar ($3.50) is hard to find nowadays but you can most definitely get one here. The dressing is spot on, the parmesan fresh and feathery. The House Salad ($2.79) makes its mark with a raspberry vinaigrette that is bright and sweet, but not cloying.

Hundreds of tiny, white party lights begin to twinkle around the deck as we begin our entrées, and the romantic tunes keep rolling as we down our wine. The Artie Parmie Pie (small $12.99), is one dish I can sincerely quote from the menu: "It's rich, but damn it's good! A love concoction of artichoke hearts, parmesan cheese, garlic, and our special ingredient!" Hmmm, wonder what that could be.... Asking the Madame will get you nowhere fast, but whatever it is, I'm still fantasizing about this pizza two days later, served on a flaky, floury, buoyant crust, and dripping its creamy filling everywhere. The Sassy Saucy Angel Hair ($7.49) is a perfectly proportioned bowl of pasta, in a red sauce replete with fresh basil and rosemary. "Copious rosemary," pronounces R., not unhappily. Sass in this case equals chili pepper, which gives the dish a bite that makes it unusual and tasty.

"Are you two having a chocolate chip orgasm tonight?" Our waitress asks this question in a practical yet charming way. There is no reason to resist, and soon we are waiting for Madame K's one and only dessert. "One orgasm ($4.79) for you two," she says, plunking it down serenely and disappearing in a hurry. It stares up at us, one scoop of rapidly melting vanilla ice cream atop a thick pancake of cookie dough that could have been cooked a tiny bit longer, and two spoons. Billie Holiday is singing about love gone wrong. It's a concept, R. says of the dessert, and cheap, considering what you have to pay for a quickie on Second Avenue. We dig in.

The deck is mostly empty now, except for a couple of cowboys who have been quietly ordering several beers in a row. Still a place for the boys, as well as romantic couples, Madame K's successfully allows the atmosphere of bygone days to thrive in her house.

Madame K's Pizza Bistro

5237 Ballard Ave. NW, 783-9710

M-Th. 5-10pm, Fri. 5-11pm, Sa. 2-11pm, Su. 2-9pm.