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Cheap Eats ; Warm, welcoming Cafe 1206 heaps on the comfort

Tucked into a busy block on Hertel Avenue in Little Italy sits Cafe 1206, which opened as Cafe Capitano last November. The name is new, but the menu and cozy ambience are fast becoming a neighborhood favorite thanks to generous servings and the "Cheers"-like atmosphere in which the staff and patrons chat over hearty portions of homemade comfort food.

On a recent visit, Dan and I shared one of the signature dishes, Big Bob's Jumbota ($7.95), a melange of eggs, potatoes, onions, green peppers and Italian sausage with a side of buttered toast. Since I love anything hot and spicy, our accommodating server, Natalie, offered to bring over a side of hot peppers. Perfectly cooked with generous servings of each ingredient, the Jumbota is a refreshing change from standard breakfast fare, but if you are in the mood for the classic egg dishes, the Cafe serves a Loaded Omelet (cheese, ham, bacon or sausage for $7.95), a Western ($6.95) and Scrambled Eggs with Toast ($3.95).

We also enjoyed French Toast ($4.95), three large slices that were tender and satisfying. The sesame seeds on the French bread created a pleasing, nutty taste on a dish that can often end up bland and soggy. It makes me wonder why more cooks don't use French bread for this standard menu item.

Owner Bobby Panaro said he uses many products from local purveyors: Luigi's Bakery, Scime's sausage and Johnny's Meats. Many of those items can be found in Victor's Italian Sausage Pattie Sandwich ($6.95), an enormous concoction that would make Dagwood proud. Fresh and filling, the sandwich contained grilled sausage, salami, capicola, provolone cheese, homemade olive oil dressing and sliced tomatoes, all encased in two slabs of grilled bread. While it was delicious, I couldn't keep my hands off the freshly cut fries that were nestled on the side. Steaming hot and crispy, the skin-on spuds were addicting.

We also tasted the steak, presented rare as ordered and bursting with flavor from the owner's secret marinade. I am not usually a carnivore, but when Dan kept raving that it was the best steak he's enjoyed in years, I had to indulge. He was right: I can't wait to order it with eggs and that fabulous French toast.

At a nearby table, neighborhood regulars Craig and Julie had invited friends Carol and John from the suburbs to experience the charm of Cafe 1206. All four commented on the flavorful food, citing the steak, tender pancakes and the extraordinary value, including bottomless mugs of robust coffee for a buck-and-a-half. A Soup of the Day (cup, $2.95; bowl, $5.95) and Stuffed Hot Peppers ($6.95) are available for lunch, along with Old Fashioned Pizza Slices ($1.95), simply prepared with sweet sauce, onion and Romano cheese.

One minor quibble: I'd like to see some fresh fruit, vegetables and yogurt on the menu, but in the meantime, I'll have to double up on those habit-forming fries.

***

CAFE 1206    

3 1/2 pennies (out of four)    

"Like eating in your mother's kitchen."    

WHERE: 1206 Hertel Ave., 844-8467    

HOURS: 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily    

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

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