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NOW, HERE'S an interesting phenomenon. When you tell people that Salvatore's Italian Gardens has reopened, they don't ask about the food.

They want to know what the place looks like!

So renowned has this huge restaurant been for decorative overkill -- and for its plaster classical nymphs, goddesses and discus throwers -- that some potential customers tend to forget that people can actually eat in this place. And a few wise guys out there have always been so busy snickering, they overlook the fact that the food here can be very good. I have never been in their number.

But we do have to talk about first things first. What does Salvatore's look like since it was rebuilt after the fire late last year? After all, no one can claim that this place doesn't get its share of publicity. Television and radio -- and bulletins from the space shuttle, for all I know -- have been insisting that the new decor is more, well, restrained. And it is.

Sort of.

What I think really happened here is that they changed historical periods -- moving right along from the classic to the Baroque. So instead of marble Roman senators here and there, there are bronzes -- of life-size horses rearing in a most threatening manner.

And the three-dimensional panorama of Roman monuments along the back wall -- which I truly loved, I am not ashamed to say -- is now (actual) history. It has been replaced by a colored glass mural in which there seem to be pink awnings on the side of St. Peter's. (I'm hoping that's a trick of perspective.)

And, oh yes, the sky above all this twinkles with stars, and it's kind of pretty.

Well, enough guidebook description. Let's move on to the cookbook section. Jupiter knows, there's plenty here to eat. Our meal began with complimentary bowls of olive salad, which was delicious. And Bruscetta, which will probably taste better later in the year when fresh tomatoes can be taken seriously.

Next, we moved on to a Prosciutto and Melon appetizer ($5.75), an amply served combination that was pleasant, though the melon was what you could call wantonly ripe. (They should have consulted the augurs here. Selecting a ripe honeydew in March -- or in August, if it comes to that -- is not an easy matter.)

Mr. Salvatore's Sausage Bread ($4.50) was a total non-P.C. delight. Its golden brown crust dripped grease, and the extensive sausage filling was nicely seasoned with fennel.

To the salads! A plus for the Caesar (what else?) -- rich, creamy, fresh croutons. And a minus for the house salad, a decent enough array of greens, to be sure. But the Raspberry Vinaigrette Dressing was so sweet, it should have been saved for the ice cream.

The Companion ordered a half-rack of lamb ($21.95) and it was crusty from a coating of garlicky bread crumbs. It could have been more elegantly served. The slightly-larger-than-usual chops weren't separated in any way, and the rack was kind of dumped onto the plate. It was also greasy.

But I also have to say his plate was polished.

Penne con Norma ($13.95) is a new item on Salvatore's menu, and this plate looked great, set off by a tomato rose and big basil leaves.

The basil flavor was welcome in the thick red sauce, which was loaded with diced eggplant.

Dessert selections come out on a silver tray. From those little embalmed samples, we selected a rich ricotta-filled Cannoli and a white chocolate creation on a crisp crust. They were good, but somehow we could not bring ourselves to finish them.

Couples watching their pennies should be aware of the Dinner for Two menu on the last page. A selection of nine entrees ranges in price from $29.95 (Fresh Broiled Scrod) to $32.95 (Prime Ribs) per couple, and the price includes salad, potato, vegetable, ice cream and coffee. Portions are a little smaller, the menu warns. But I'm not sure that's serious cause for worry.

Marotto's ** 1/2 (March 24)
Marotto's, 3365 Delaware Ave., Kenmore (873-0551). This long-established and comfortable restaurant offers well-prepared popular standards.
Le Peche ** 1/2 (March 17)
Le Peche, 610 Main St. (845-5223). Pastries, salads, hot dishes and soups in the very heart of the Theater District. Wonderful over-the-top decor.
6461 Transit Road, Depew (683-7990). It's ba-a-a-ack! One of the area's best-known, most elaborately decorated restaurants has reopened after a disastrous fire. Large, lavish surroundings and a big menu. Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.

BEST DISH: Penne Con La Norma.

NEEDS WORK: Salad dressing.

PRICE RANGE: Dinners from around $15 include salad, potato and vegetable. Dinners for Two with salad, potato, vegetable, dessert and beverage from $29.95.


HOURS: Dinner only, Mon. through Sat. from 5 p.m., Sun. from 3 p.m. Kitchen closes about 10 p.m.

HEALTH-CONSCIOUS CHOICES: Penne Norma, Grilled Swordfish.


PARKING: In the lot.
KEY: *FAIR, **GOOD, ***VERY GOOD, ****EXCELLENT, *****EXTRAORDINARY. Stars are awarded for the quality of the food only.

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