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European charm; From start to finish, Caffe Espresso offers satisfying dishes

Don't believe every sign you see. Caffe Espresso, in a plaza at Main Street and Transit Road in Clarence, for instance, is not just another coffee bar. In fact, if you check the business card, you learn that the place also calls itself a "Ristorante Italiano & Bar" with an "Atmosphera Europa." You certainly don't have to be a Berlitz student to figure out what that means.

It also happens to be true.

The restaurant has an unusual layout -- the ceilings are high, high, high; the floor is concrete and the whole place is long and narrow. There's not that much seating, despite the grandiose appearance. A good-looking bar runs along one side of the room, and the few tables kind of march alongside it. The chef owner here is Rosa Maria Parlato and she has added feminine touches to the decor, like the gossamer fabric swatches that drape dramatically overhead that help to soften the reverberations from that ceiling. Then there's the table setting. Though some of the menus bear finger marks (a turnoff), the linen napkins are pristine and prettily folded to form separate little pockets for the silverware.

Did I mention that the food tastes really good, too?

We began our meal with a basket that contained only one type of bread -- and that's not a complaint since it was delicious. Almost like an unfilled panini, it had been flattened and grilled then brushed with herbs and olive oil.

Then we shared a salad -- a big salad and a fine one. Insalata Spicy Shrimp ($13) was based on arugula and other dark greens and figured plenty of large shrimp that had been caramelized in mango syrup and topped with mandarin oranges. The fresh-tasting vinaigrette had been infused with basil and it cut through any possible overwhelming sweetness. It was what you might call a good start to a meal.

Then came Bruschetta ($9) -- attractively presented. That same grilled flat bread sported mounds of tomatoes and herbs drizzled with a balsamic glaze. Now as we all know, unless you're living somewhere south of the equator, this is no time of year to indulge in fresh tomatoes. And indeed the tomatoes in this bruschetta were pale in appearance and maybe not as juicy as they might have been if it were August -- if only it were. But still they had been seasoned so enthusiastically, this was much more than just an acceptable dish.

Time for the main course. Bad news at first -- they were out of the Lobster Ravioli with Red Pepper Sauce. Time to regroup. "How about the risotto?" I asked ($20).

"She just started it, let's see how long it will take," came the server's reply. A good sign if ever there was one. And then came the good news. It would be ready.

To tell the truth, when the risotto finally came, it was worth waiting for. "Profumo di Bosco al Tartufo," the menu read. It was rich and redolent with the taste and aroma of porcini mushrooms and truffle oil. And, of course, the shaved slabs of Parmigiano-reggiano didn't exactly hurt.

The house specialty here, the Companion was ecstatic to note, is Pappardelle al Bolognese ($21). He could actually feel justified in indulging in it, he reasoned. Made with homemade pasta and veal, pork and beef ragu, it was a hearty meal.

Other appetizers include a first course of sauteed mussels in tomato sauce and a prosciutto plate with buffalo mozzarella. If you're not in a pasta mood -- and there are plenty of pastas to choose from -- you might go for the grilled sea bass or the Chicken Marsala or the 20-ounce Cowboy Steak. (Cowboy steak? Well, why not?)

All sorts of pretty desserts were lined up for inspection, but we chose the one that looked endearingly homemade. It was even in a Pyrex 9-by-13-inch pan, God love it. A good choice. That Tiramisu ($7) was light as air.

email: janiceokun@yahoo.com

***

CAFFE ESPRESSO

3 1/2 stars (out of 4)

WHERE: Transit Road, Clarence (626-2233, www.RistoranteEspresso.com). Even though this place calls itself a caffe, it's really a ristorante with a selection of carefully cooked food. Credit Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.

FAVORITE DISH: Insalata Spicy Shrimp

NEEDS WORK: Food is of fine quality.

PRICE RANGE: Pasta dishes from $20.

SERVICE: Very good.

HOURS: Dinner, 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Lunch to resume in the spring.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

PARKING: In the plaza.

RATINGS: Stars reflect the overall dining experience at the time of The News' visit with greatest weight given to quality of the food.