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Full plate Giant meatball is just one attraction at Lackawanna spot

It's one of the restaurants of the moment, no doubt. Everyone is telling me about the Mulberry Ristorante, a cute neighborhood place with bright-red walls to match most of its menu. The walls are attractively covered with sports and entertainment memorabilia.

The place is deceptive; it's larger than it looks from outside. There's a separate barroom next to the slightly more formal dining room. Often, be warned, the place is full; Friday night Fish Fry, we're told, is especially wild. Most of the time, they set crowd records.

Pasta is, not surprisingly, the specialty of the house -- there are more than 25 different combinations on the menu. But there are a few meat and poultry dishes represented, too, including the Bistecca Arugula, a grilled rib-eye topped with an arugula salad with a slice of fresh mozzarella and a side of pasta for $23. That rib-eye combo, by the way, is the most expensive item on the menu.

And we certainly don't want to forget to mention this: Entree portions are, shall we say, generous.

Antipasti or appetizers, however, are a little more restrained. We began with two of them. A serving of zesty Italian Sausage-Stuffed Hot Peppers for $7.95 could feed two people lightly. Ditto the Shrimp Fra Diavolo ($9.95), which featured large crustaceans and a tomato sauce with a deceptive little kick. That kick added real satisfaction.

One of our diners, traditionalist to the end, went for the Spaghetti with Meatball for $10. It was enough to feed the crowd at Dunn Tire Park, I'd say, which is perfectly fair. The meatball was the size of a baseball.

The accompanying house salad was fresh, especially when served with roasted tomato vinaigrette dressing.

Another diner opted for the Eggplant Parmigiana (with a side of pasta, $12.99) -- have I mentioned that these are big servings? As for the quality and taste of the dish itself, it was certainly adequate but not extraordinary.

And then there was Pasta Joseph for $16.99. There's pasta with roasted tomato, roasted red pepper, artichokes, garlic, onion, diced hot peppers, sliced New York strip steak, shrimp and fresh herbs -- I don't think I've forgotten anything. Every one of those ingredients would be great on its own. But together? Confusion reigns. Tastes fight each other. What is the Italian word for mishmash?

Other, more creative, pastas are on the menu, too. There's Penne alla Occhino, grilled veal and shrimp in vodka sauce ($19.99); Spinach Ravioli in Alfredo sauce with roasted Red Pepper ($13.99); Linguine with anchovies in tomato, garlic, onion and olive olive topped with toasted bread crumbs ($13.99); and -- interestingly, still hard to find in Western New York -- whole grain pasta with shrimp, plum tomato, garlic and rosemary ($13.99).

There's even Linguine alla Estrada, which cuts across international lines. It's a chorizo Bolognese with shrimp Sazon, the Latin American flavoring ($15.99).

Several cheesecakes are offered for dessert, and the best by far is the Ricotta Cheesecake with fresh berry sauce ($3.95). It's cheesecake of the lighter school, to be sure.

Which is probably just as well. Just think of the size of those pastas.

e-mail: jokun@buffnews.com

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MULBERRY ITALIAN RISTORANTE

3 stars (out of 4)

WHERE: Jackson Ave., Lackawanna (822-4292). A neighborhood red-sauce house with warm ambience, big crowds and Brobdingnagian meatballs. Credit Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.

FAVORITE DISH: Those meatballs.

NEEDS WORK: Pasta Joseph

PRICE RANGE: Pasta with house salad from $10.99; poultry and meat from $12.99.

SERVICE: Good

NOISE LEVEL: Moderate

HOURS: Lunch, Tuesday through Sunday. Dinner 4 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

HEALTHY CHOICES: Whole Grain Pasta with Shrimp and Plum Tomatoes, Spaghetti Puttanesca.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.

PARKING: Lot across the street.

KID APPEAL: Lots -- if they're hungry.

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