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Michael’s Italian Restaurant serves exceptional food at reasonable prices

I visited Michael’s Italian Restaurant just once, years ago, and all I remembered about the place was that it was not too large and that almost all of the seating was in booths. Oh, and I did remember the food as being reasonably priced and scrumptious.

A second trip on a recent weekend with John, Pat and John reminded me that my initial impressions were right, and raised the question of why I hadn’t been back in all those years.

Michael’s is a storefront in the heart of Little Italy on Pine Avenue in Niagara Falls. The alluring aroma of red sauce fills the air, greeting you as you open the door. We seated ourselves at one of the central booths, and were immediately set up with silverware, place mats, glasses of ice water and menus. Our soft drinks were on the table before we finished paging through the menu. After we ordered, the first course of salads and soup was served almost immediately. The staff at Michael’s seems to know that their customers are hungry, and do their best to get that problem solved quickly.

The menu is large, and divided into several sections. The traditional Italian-American offerings include antipasto ($10.50 to $16.95), soups ($3.25 for a cup, $3.75 for a bowl) and pasta dishes, with the most expensive being the meat and cheese lasagna ($10.25), followed by both cheese and beef ravioli, cavatelli, gnocci, eggplant parm and homemade macaroni, with the bargains of ziti, linguini, rigatoni or shells ($7.10).

There are also half-size pasta dishes for a buck and change less than the full sizes. Meatballs, meat sauce, a layer of baked cheese, mushrooms and Italian sausage can be added to any pasta dish for about $2 more.

The menu also lists six slightly pricier Italian dinners, from baked Italian sausage ($11) to eggplant parm with pasta and salad ($12.95). And any kind of sandwich you would want is made here, too.

American-style items range from a cube steak dinner ($9.75) to an open steak sandwich on garlic toast ($12.95) and including breaded pork chops, liver and onions, baked ham, half of a fried chicken and other favorites. Each of these dinners includes a salad and potatoes, but macaroni can be substituted for the potatoes for $1.75 more.

The starter salads were cool and fresh, made of iceberg, grape tomatoes and rolled mozzarella, a nice touch. The house dressing was a balanced Italian dressing with a bit of a kick.

The beans and greens soup was sublime, and that’s saying something for such a simple dish – just white cannellini beans, strips of deeply colored greens (this seemed to be escarole), vegetable or chicken broth and spices, with garlic leading the charge. The beans and greens were soft and comforting, the broth creamy, rich and bursting with flavor.

As we were finishing the starters, our plates arrived. The generous half-order of spaghetti ($6.20) was cooked perfectly and served hot. A half-order of cheese ravioli ($7.95) included six large pasta pillows stuffed with creamy ricotta. Both were topped with Michael’s red sauce, which we found delicious, ever-so-slightly sweet and full of flavor. We agreed that we could just eat it off a spoon.

The half-order of meat and cheese lasagna ($8.75) was so large that we checked with our server that she hadn’t served the full portion. “Yes, that’s the half-size; our portions are huge,” she said, smiling proudly. The lasagna was a wonderful creation, with sheets of pasta generously layered with browned meat and creamy ricotta. It was not just hot but molten, and even after parts of it were broken off and spread around the plate, it was still steaming.

But all the conversation at the table halted when “The Michael’s Famous Calzone” ($8.95, with additions for $1.60 each) landed on the table with a thud. The slightly puffy, folded dough pocket glistened with a bit of oil, but it was not greasy. The calzone had been sliced into four long segments, each packed with ricotta and mozzarella, as well as the sliced mushrooms and chunks of meatballs we had added. A cup of red sauce on the side would have been good for dipping, if the segments could have been raised. But as they were so overstuffed, we resorted to opening the top flap and spooning on sauce, then attacking it with a knife and fork. While we ate, we discussed how many people it would feed. We concluded that with beans and greens or salad, was three, and could feed four if you added antipasto. More than half of it went home.

Totally unnecessarily, we added an order of meatballs (two for $2.10) and sausage (two for $2.50). Both were excellent, and had been simmered in sauce to perfection. The meatballs were tender and beefy; the sausage worried a few of us because of previous run-ins with snappy-skinned sausage with bits of gristle. But no, this sausage was meaty and yielding, with accents of sage and fennel. Like the rest of the food at Michael’s, delizioso.

Michael’s Italian Restaurant

Where: 3011 Pine Ave., Niagara Falls (282-4043)

4 pennies

Hours: Opens daily at 11 a.m., closes at 10:45 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and at 11:45 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Wheelchair Access: Yes, although most seating is in booths.