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Dining Out: New restaurant offers fine Italian fare

Conti’s Ristorante

249-11 Northern Blvd., Little Neck

428-8800

The vibes are good at Conti’s. Though only four months old, it has that mellow, well-established feeling.

The light fixtures are elegant with a just-right glow. The music - yes, Italian - is audible but just barely, even early in the dinner hour. Diners are engrossed in conversation. It is a low, pleasing buzz, not a din. The room is a sea of tables, nicely filled on a Wednesday by 8 p.m. Fresh flowers are on the table up front that holds a diverse array of dolci, including a rather unbelievable fresh fruit and berry plate, and a pea green pistachio cannoli.

The seasoned, black-jacketed wait staff seem to be here, there and everywhere. Service is well-paced. The bones of the former Italian restaurant at this site are discernible, notably the handsome little bar as you enter and the delightful vignettes above. A goodly number of low-key paintings have been added, and there is an elegant look out front with a quartet of fir trees in planters bedecked with tiny white lights.

On arrival, a plate with two well-endowed bruschetta, two petite rounds of hard salami, short, slender sticks of parmigiano and a colossal green olive was set before us. Our waiter, occasionally referring to a crib sheet, reeled off the specials. The list goes on and on and on. You grasp onto the one or two you can remember. It was the longest list of specials I had ever encountered,

We only glanced at the menu. It was specials all the way. Chicken rice soup with escarole was my appetizer and a lovely way to begin. The broth was full-flavored, dotted with small cubes of breast meat. The escarole was genteel. Delicate kernels of fluffy rice were distributed throughout. The addition of freshly grated Parmesan by our busboy thickened it slightly, and added just the right touch.

My dining companion’s tri-color salad was heaped high, with the dressing on the side as requested. A word about the bread - great. It looks mundane Italian, thinly sliced. But it was toasty hot and had good crust and flavor.

My companion’s red snapper was served with a garlic-laden light sauce. Filleted? Yes, but then the outside had been removed and she decided, next time, “No.” A side plate of small boiled potatoes, whole green beans and carrots accompanied it.

My choice was braccioli, once popular on Italian menus. It’s called beef birds and roladen on menus in other countries. At Conti’s the distinguishing note is the inclusion of pignoli - pine nuts. The accompanying gnocchi went ever so tastily with it. Sometimes they are twice as large. Sometimes they are gummy. These - tiny, half-sized and very light - were perfect. The braccioli - only one, but huge - was salty and on the crumbly side, but with a fine brown gravy that was the perfect plate-mate for the gnocchi.

For dolci, my companion had been enamored of the fruit plate that was presented at the table along with tray of high-calorie goodies, including caramel custard and chocolate mousse. It boasted strawberries, blueberries, white grapes and sliced fresh pear. I decided on Italian cheesecake, which was moister than the usual, and I liked that. The espressos, one a decaf, filled the demi cup to the brim - just what we hoped for.

By espresso time, we had hit upon a strategy to cope with the specials overload: After the recitation of the appetizers, call a halt and order. Then on to the entrees. (Or Conti’s could hand you a printed list of specials to be referred to during the waiter’s recitation- as in some churches.)

Fine dining is the thing at Conti’s. And the vibes are good. Carry on!

THE BOTTOM LINE

Northern Italian. Refined fine dining. Mature, professional wait staff. Long list of specials.

CHEF'S CHOICE

Antipasto Caldo (combination of shrimp, stuffed mushrooms & baked clams)...$9.95

Penne al Porcino ala Conti’s (with imported dried porcini mushrooms)...$15.95

Osso Bucco (shank of veal braised in brown sauce, served with rice or gnochhi)...$22.95

Vitello alla Sorrentina (proscuitto, egglant, and melted mozzarella)...$21.95

Scampi alla Conti’s (jumbo shrimp with lemon, bread crumbs & white wine)...$18.95

Lobster Tail alla Conti’s (with calamari, clams, mussels and shrimp over linguine)...$24.95

Cuisine: Northern Italian

Setting: Refined

Service: Mature professionals

Hours: Closed Mon. D 6 days. (Sun 2pm). L Tues-Fri

Reservations: Yes

Location: Between Marathon & 249thSt. N side

Parking: Valet Fri & Sat

Dress: Casual

Credit cards: All major. No Discover

Children: Accomodate

Takeout: Yes

Off-premise catering: Yes

Private parties: To 60

Smoking: None

Handicap accessable: Two Steps

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