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La Grotta: La Grotta on Northern Boulevard offers a slice of Naples

LA GROTTA

254-12 Northern Blvd.

Little Neck

224-8899

La Grotta. The cave.

La Grotta de Marcello is easily spotted as you near the city line in Little Neck. There's a cascading waterfall outside (and you'll find a smaller version inside). At night the trees are wrapped in twinkling white mini-lights, and there are four tall wrought-iron lamp posts aglow. For a garden effect, out front there's a trio of white plastic wicker settees.

The bar on warm evenings is open to the street. And from Monday to Friday, a piano player renders classical tunes and visits your table to take requests.

Enter the dining room - there are two. The front one has the waterfall presided over by a porpoise. The room drips with artificial blooms. Wine carafes have a flower base. The oil-and-vinegar cruet design is also unique. Conversation pieces abound and were put there precisely for that.

It is a whole other scene. And for some it takes a bit to acclimate, especially the piped-in music which is an earful , a very loud earful.

When we're seated (close quarters!), a plate of bruschetta topped with shaved parmigiana arrives. A basket with mini (Thank you) cubes of moist focaccia so good that butter is not required, arrives now. We settle in to concentrate on the menu. Marcello (easily identified by the pony tail) circulates making contact with each table. It's a Monday night and the place is jumping. Better make a reservation.

The food, red-sauce Italian, is good, very good. John, the chef with many years of Italian experience, comes from the Naples area.

It's also nicely priced. Better yet, there's a "one price fits all" for each category - appetizers, salads, pastas, fish, veal and chicken.

My dining companion chose two specials - oysters for her appetizer. They looked fresh from the sea, a variety of shapes and sizes from a blue point oyster bed. One looked like a gnarled fist (she took it home for show-and-tell). Another was bambino-sized and perfectly flat. I delighted in the viewing (Well, I did slurp down that small one. No sauce.) Walnut salad caught my eye (mesclun with white raisins, shavings of parmigiana and a walnut mustard dressing.) This was great dining. The flavors contrasted brilliantly.

Her main course special was colorful - chicken with chopped mushrooms and roasted red peppers in a brandy sauce. La Grotta's entrees come with pan-roasted potatoes and greens.

My selection, veal sorrentino with sliced eggplant, prosciutto and cheese, was a delight - three scallopines, each topped with a thin slice of prosciutto and eggplant and most importantly a thin, thin slice of mozzarella, all sized just right. It had so much more appeal than a single slab lost under an oozing, overdose of mozzarella.

Desserts were mostly $3.75 (tiramisu, cheesecake, and a house torte) with $4.75 for fresh fruit and zabaglione with strawberries. She had had their zabaglione before and prevailed upon them to produce it - a fine version, thicker than most and amply berried. My selection was a raspberry torte with almond paste decor - on the sweet side for me- ultra bright green and ultra bright red jelly ribbons on a dead white plate.

The buzz around town is that La Grotta is considering expanding and that sound-deadening material is to be added

You know, although it took getting used to, I'll take La Grotta as is. It's, as noted, a whole other experience. Plus good food, good prices.

And so vibrant on Mondays.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Waterfalls. Twinkling lights. An overdose of artificial flowers. Piano music. Tight squeeze. Good red sauced tomato cuisine. Good prices. Takes getting used to but could become addictive.

CHEF'S CHOICE

Gamberetti alla Fricasee (baby shrimp sauteed in garlic,

cognac and creamy mustard sauce)...$6.75

Crab Cakes (house specialty)...$6.75

Cocktail di Gamberoni (shrimp cocktail)...$10.75

Agnelotti Matriciana (semi circcular pasta stuffed with

basil & cheese)...$9.75

Salmone al Forno (broiled in white wine, lemon, garlic,&

fresh herbs)...$16.75

Tuna alla Miele (crusted tuna with honey mustard

sauce)...$17.75

Vitello alla Cardinale (veal with tomato & fresh herbs baked

with mozzarella...$14.75

Plool alla Cacciatore (chicken breast with onions, mushrooms..$13.75

Tiramisu (house specialty)...$3.75

Setting: waterfalls, conversation pieces

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