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Cheap Eats

When our oldest daughter was faced with choosing a restaurant for her birthday dinner, it was a dish -- not a place -- that made up her mind.

The first time we'd ever had the cheese gnocchi at La Hacienda, we asked the server for a half order. When the tender pasta nuggets arrived, dressed in a light, fresh tomato sauce, the struggle that ensued convinced us that a half order of gnocchi was only a recipe for sorrow.

When we returned for her birthday, the girl and her mother both asked for a full order of gnocchi ($11.95). They knew they would have to share with dad, brother and sister, so it wasn't an overwhelming amount of food.

There's a lot of Italian restaurants in Niagara Falls, but La Hacienda's pasta and pizza have developed a hard-core following that allows the restaurant to open for limited hours and not take credit cards. The pasta specialties include trippa all' abbruzzese ($13), and Bolognese sauce served over egg fettucine ($11.90).

Chicken cacciatore ($12.95), braciole ($15.95), ravioli ($13.95), veal Milanese ($15.95) and veal parmesan ($16.95) are available, if slightly out of the range of cheap eats. Lasagna, rigatoni, spaghetti and shells are all $9.50 for a full order, $4.75 for a half.

I chose the Bolognese, and unlike any Italian meat sauce I've had, it had no tomato at all. Just tender coarsely ground beef, in a savory gravy that reminded me -- in a good way -- of excellent beef Stroganoff. Two people could have shared the dish -- La Hacienda offers half portions of all of its pastas -- but I was hungry, and it was powerfully good.
La Hacienda's pizza is also unusual. It's thinner than the standard Western New York pie, crusty and floppy at the same time, definitely requiring two hands for a slice. A large cheese pizza ($10.25) is a treat in itself, with crushed tomatoes and fresh herbs creating an impression. Additional toppings, from La Hacienda's wide selection, are $2.25 each for a large pizza.

A meal at La Hacienda can take longer than some pizza-pasta joints, because here the servers wait for you to finish your salads before the kitchen fires the pasta courses. But they're flexible; when we told our server that we were in a bit of a hurry, they brought our dishes with dispatch.

They brought a birthday surprise for our daughter, too. After hearing that it was a special day for her, servers appeared at tableside with a slice of cheesecake sporting a candle, and sang to her. "That was the best birthday dinner I've ever had," she said later.

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La Hacienda

3019 Pine Ave., Niagara Falls

285-2536

Review: 3 1/2 pennies (Out of 4)

La Hacienda is open from 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. It is wheelchair-accessible.

-- Andrew Galarneau

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