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I think the moment Santa Rosa's Guy Fieri sealed the deal with me on his Food Network show came when the barrel-chested chef was about to dig his bare hands into a bowl of raw beef and pork while making a cornbread-stuffed meat loaf.

"But first," the dude with the spiky hair cautioned, "we have to de-bling."

Off came the showy, large ring from his left hand, only a part of the bling adorning Fieri on "Guy's Big Bite," airing on Food Network at 10 a.m. Sundays (7 a.m. on satellite services).

Right now, this Guy's a hot item - you could say Fieri is en fuego. He's obviously on to something, succeeding in getting guys to watch food shows. That largely explains why ratings for his first three shows have been so strong. Two weeks ago, for example, only NBC's Wimbledon coverage beat "Big Bites" in the Bay Area Nielsens, remarkable for a cable channel.

With his beefy physique and big forearms, the guy sure looks like he could be a butcher or a furniture mover. When I told Fieri, on the phone from New York, that I thought his approach to cooking was "muscular," he chuckled and said, "I like that."

I'll admit that, like some e-mailers to the paper's Web site, I'd also thought The Press Democrat had gone a bit overboard on Fieri, running numerous stories on him. But I hadn't watched the "Next Big Food Network Star" shows that won Fieri his own TV gig. And having now seen his culinary act on cable a couple of times, I think the Food Network may have itself a true future star. Fieri's the anti-Pepin, and his hip and unpretentious, just-a-dude-who-likes-to-cook persona is both appealing and as fresh as his ingredients.

"I'd say the real me definitely comes through on the show, which kinda surprised me," said Fieri. "I'm getting e-mail from ladies who've made their boyfriends watch the show."

The Food Network, like all networks, wants to lure young viewers. In Fieri, they may have just the ticket. His irreverent approach - "We gotta get these onions working" is one of his favorite phrases - seems tailor-made for Gen-X and Gen-Y types. "Let's get that bacon workin' " he adds, while explaining how good everything in his kitchen smells.

If the frenetic, pot-lifting pace Fieri maintains during his show sometimes causes him to breathe heavily, it also keeps the viewer engaged.

"Man, sometimes my director counts down a scene, '5-4-3-2-1 .. .' " Fieri said, "and I'd better get that bad boy in the oven by zero or we have to do another take."

Some scenes require three takes, some just one. "And the producers have several backup dishes ('swap-outs') prepared for each stage of a dish so we can pick up filming there," he said. "We can't burn too much money."

I'm sure network execs appreciate the fact that as a businessman (owner of three North Bay restaurants) himself, Fieri is keenly aware of budgets.

Fieri said the show's "cold open" (TV talk for the first few seconds) and the closing are usually scripted, but the rest is mostly Fieri being Fieri. So he just wings it, and he's pleasant without being a Martin Yan-like jokester. He's fun to watch as he constantly shuffles his heavy pans. He's also an extrovert, a big plus.

Fieri has finished taping all six of his 30-minute "Bites" and has been asked to do two specials to air later this year, presumably to keep his face familiar to Food Network viewers.

The network is being tight-lipped about his national ratings, but Fieri said "they seem real happy with the show. They say e-mail response is important, and we're getting plenty of that."

A decision to renew will be made in a few months, he said. When I told Fieri about his sky-high Bay Area ratings, neither he nor his producer, Matt Disson, had heard the good news. Fieri laughed: "My producer's eyes just lit up."

Fieri shows a lot of poise for someone with little TV experience. "When I do mess up," he said, "no one rolls their eyes. Hey, I'm a businessman, I don't want to be burning up their money."

Even though it's normally the director who yells "Cut!" Fieri said he's done it a few times himself. "One time I overcooked some onions and just stopped," he recalled. "I explained that this dish can't go any further like this."

In another segment, Fieri dropped a potato. But like a poised pro, he never missed a beat, telling his audience, "I'll pick that up later."

"I'm glad they left all that in," said Fieri. "Cooks drop stuff all the time."

Fieri was surprised at the support staff required to do even a modest show like his. "There are 50 people on our show," he said. "I kinda see myself as the quarterback, but I need tackles and halfbacks to make it all work."

That's an apt metaphor, coming from a muscular guy.