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MICHAEL'S STANDS OUT IN A CROWD

We would like to register a complaint about Michael's Restaurant.

Clearly, its management needs to make some changes around the place. They should either:

a) Make the food worse.

b) Jack up the prices.

c) Or figure out how to expand.

Because Michael's is far, far too popular. Trying to find a table at lunchtime in this cozy Pine Avenue family joint is often no fun at all.

Since the restaurant's collection of home-style family favorites and Italian dishes includes so many excellent values, however, we just end up standing and waiting for a table. It's not usually as crowded at dinnertime, when the food is identical but some of the prices are a few dollars higher.

The vast regular menu has about 47 sandwiches, from American cheese ($2.20) to a salami-capicola club ($5.75). There would probably be more, except it looks like the designer ran out of room. There are pizza and chicken wings, salads and pastas.

You can also choose from dozens of standards, like liver and onions, grilled chicken breast and porterhouse steak.

And the standard array of pastas: lasagna, ravioli, gnocchi, homemade macaroni, rigatoni, linguine, with an assortment of sauces and other accompaniments.

At Michael's, though, the specials board is always worth examining. Occasional offerings like pork cacciatore, fettucine Alfredo, and cavatelli with meatballs find lots of takers. Usually the specials come with soup or salad, and rarely are more than $8 at lunch.

Ours tends to be the gnocchi Parmesan with pesto, toothsome pasta nuggets with basil sauce, sprinkled with pine nuts. It goes for $7.50 at lunch, with soup. And when we're at Michael's, "with soup" means beans and greens.

Practically every Italian restaurant in town offers a version of beans and greens, but Michael's stands out. Swiss chard or other greens, small white beans, chicken stock, onions, and, we think, Romano cheese. We don't know what exactly makes it so good, just that it vanishes every time.

Too good for the kids. We turned the urchins loose on a small antipasto ($8.50), and they stripped it of provolone and American cheese, ham and salami, leaving us the roasted red peppers, caponata, pepperoni and tuna salad.

Bouncing Boy toyed with his chicken fingers ($4.60) and tested the buoyancy of French fries in Sprite. Little Red mugged a hot dog ($3.50), and pronounced herself in love. Big Gal thought her cheeseburger ($4) was "great . . . cheesy . . . tender."

Their long-suffering mother exulted over a half-helping of lasagna ($6.95). Quintessential, comforting, well-proportioned ricotta-sauce-pasta ratios, not overly oreganoed. "Probably the best I ever had," she said, "though I would have liked some fresher bread."

Here, the calzones are deep-fried and the size of a deflated rugby ball. We stopped halfway through a pepperoni example ($8.50); only diminished capacity saving us from sure carbohydrate coma. The ricotta- and mozzarella-filled turnover is $7.25 for just cheese, but why go halfway?

When we asked about a daily special we saw on the board several weeks ago, the server said she would be right back. She returned with a small, well-thumbed notebook, and our name and phone number joined the specials notification list.

When we got the rest of our calzone to go, we received an extra cup of sauce for dipping, without asking.

Maybe you wouldn't stand and wait for a table at a family restaurant. But the service, and the value, sure helps explain those at Michael's who do.

MICHAEL'S RESTAURANT

Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)

e-mail: agalarneau@buffnews.com

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