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The food is good, the prices are fair, the portions are healthy

The folks over at Mama Rosa's apparently have something in common with renowned "60 Minutes" correspondent Morley Safer, who once said: "You can never have enough garlic. With enough garlic you can eat the New York Times."

Actually, we've been pretty happy with the fare at Mama's -- much more so than its predecessor, Just Pizza. Here's hoping that Mama sticks around far longer than that place was able to hang on. After all, Niagara Falls has been known to devour some pretty popular eateries -- Red Lobster, Boston Market, Long John Silver's, Anderson's -- to name but a few.

The good news is that unlike those eateries, Mama Rosa's isn't a chain; it's just another Italian restaurant trying to make a go of it in an area that has long supported good Italian eateries.

Still, Mama Rosa's deserves a chance, and here's why: The food is good, the prices are fair, the portions are healthy, and the garlic is free-flowing.

Mama goes heavy on the Italian fare, but there are alternatives. Friday fish fries are passable, for instance. There's a whole side menu devoted to such staples as submarine sandwiches, tacos, wings and the like. And, of course, there is a full menu unto itself for pizza, including something called a "Hollywood" pizza that just screams for your gastric attention.

On this busy post-Christmas shopping day we weren't in the mood for takeout, however; we were eating in, with pasta on our minds. And this little diner, with its simulated cracked plaster and brick walls and cozy little tables, felt like it had been lifted right out of a quaint corner of "The Boot."

We started things off with an order of the fried ravioli appetizer ($7.95). Consisting of about a half-dozen homemade cheese ravioli that are breaded and then fried, it was served with a roasted red pepper remoulade sauce over top. Tangy and tasty. There were no complaints among the six at our table.

The generous specials board offered a variety of dishes in a range of prices, and we sampled one from the top rung: Seafood Fra Diavolo ($19.95), which offered shrimp, mussels, clams and calamari tossed with linguini and covered in a spicy marinara. It came with a cup of the soup of the day, Italian egg-drop.

The soup was strong -- you could smell the broth from across the table -- and had a bit of a kick to it, according to our taster. Boasting a healthy portion of pasta and greens, he declared it "very good." The seafood, on the other hand, was "excellent -- well worth the price!" There was no skimping on any of the ingredients, with oodles of shrimp amid a sea full of shelled creatures. The linguini was done nicely, and the sauce -- although leaning heavily on the garlic -- was tasty and offered quite the zing.

You can get your favorite pasta paired up with your favorite sauce just the way you like it here, everything from angel hair to penne to rigatoni, topped with Bolognaise or Alfredo or marinara or even a banana pepper cream sauce. Of course, you can add toppings, as well, be they meatballs or whatever else you might prefer.

Because it was lunchtime, our pasta appetites were limited. We did try the chicken parmigiana ($9.95 -- although later in the day, 4-7 p.m., it was on special for $5.95). Consisting of a cutlet topped with cheese and sauce and a side of pasta, it was "pretty good" -- although there was brief debate over whether the meat may have been veal instead of chicken. Again, the pasta was well-done, and the sauce was tasty.

Speaking of chicken, we also sampled the chicken fingers from the subs/pizza portion of the menu. For $9.95 you get a steaming plateful of six big fingers and a side of fries. Our taster said that the aroma of her hot sauce was enough to open her previously compromised sinuses. She gave the dish an "A."

From the sandwich portion of the menu we sampled the grilled chicken ($7.95) and the steak and spinach ($10.95). Both were served with melted mozzarella, and the chicken came with a healthy dollop of pesto mayonnaise, which the girls were eager to try.

There was no mention of the garlic on my steak and spinach, but it was there all right -- in spades. Despite mounds of thinly shaved, tender steak lathered in melted cheese and greens, the garlic was the overriding taste. It was still quite good, but I would have preferred a lighter touch.

The girls both enjoyed their chicken sandwiches as well. The meat was tender and moist, and held in place by the same sesame seed bun as mine. There didn't seem to be as much garlic, however, and the clincher was that pesto mayo, which they both adored.

Considering that the menu boasts of recipes "passed down for 75 years" in the family of Chef Marcos, it would seem that Mama Rosa's would be well-positioned to make a name for itself in this city, like the other good Italian eateries to come before it. If the desserts are any indication, Mama's will be here for the long haul.

All homemade -- tiramisu, cheesecake, cannoli and creme brulee -- we were able to squeeze in only one due to the ample plate sizes of the entrees. We all sampled the creme brulee and agreed that it was the best-tasting $5 we'd ever spent.

It would be nice if they could add some luncheon specials to the menu, but all-in-all, we have been pleasantly surprised by the little place in the corner of a busy plaza that used to be a pizzeria.

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Mama Rosa's    

8351 Niagara Falls Blvd., Niagara Falls (283-2200)    

3 stars (out of four)    

Favorite dish: Seafood FraDiavolo    

Needs work: Garlic content    

Healthy choice: Skip the yummy desserts    

Price range: Moderate    

Service: Good, friendly    

Noise level: Low    

Wheelchair access: Yes    

Parking: Connected lot    

Kid appeal: Fair    

Hours: Open daily at 10 a.m., Sunday through Thursday until midnight, Friday and Saturday until 1 a.m.