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Dining Out: Dino’s: Astoria night spot gets garlicky Montenegrin twist

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Dino’s, the restaurant that now occupies the Astoria space formerly know as Amici Amore and Butcher Brothers, is the same but different. Ownership has remained within the Redzic clan. The menu is only slightly different. It’s a matter of emphasis, really.

The Redzic family comes from Montenegro. They also own the nearby Ljuljhami Meat Market, a halal butcher that produces its own Montenegrin-style sausages and cured meats. Their restaurants have always capitalized on the connection to the butcher shop, but in this most recent incarnation, the Montenegrin offerings enjoy their own special menu category under Balkan grill.

In addition to the meats, other Montenegrin specialties have found their way onto the menu. Montenegrin feta cheese, which is a bit creamier and milder than its Greek relative, turns up in a variety of dishes. Then there is the “forbidden cheese,” or kajmak (in Montenegrin). It tastes like very fluffy whipped butter with a slightly cheesy flavor. If you’re not paying attention, you could mistake it for butter (but with half the calories). It’s made from raw cow and sheep milk especially for Dino Redzic at Coach Farms (yes, the same family as the handbags) in upstate New York. It is served with lepinja, warm, homemade Bosnian bread that falls somewhere between Greek pita and Turkish ekmet in texture and flavor.

You can sample the Montenegrin sausages as an appetizer, flambéed at tableside. We decided to forego that pleasure, opting instead for a couple of the Italian style apps. The carpaccio manzo, paper-thin slices of raw beef with arugula, shavings of Parmesan, drizzles of balsamic vinegar and truffle oil, stroked our inner carnivore. Warm artichoke, a family recipe from the Redzic matriarch, was accompanied by lightly cooked baby spinach, Parmesan and balsamic. This toothsome dish could happily double as an entrée for a vegetarian in your party.

Montenegrin salad (crnogoska) of cucumber, romaine, tomatoes and feta was reminiscent of a Turkish coban salad. It’s on the appetizer list, but a salad comes with all the entrees, so catch it there.

We fondly remembered a pasta dish from the Amici Amore days, rigatoni presented inside a hollowed-out eggplant. The dish is still on the menu, listed as rigatoni with eggplant and ricotta in a light marinara sauce, no longer comes in an eggplant. Instead it’s gotten in on the flambé action. The result was a gentle, comforting dish, although we wished the pasta was a little more al dente.

With the exception of the Balkan grill section, the entrees lean heavily on Italian favorites. Saltimbocca, veal cutlets with sage and prosciutto, scored one for the home team with its use of Ljuljhami prosciutto. Cherry wine gave the sauce a different, almost lemony flavor.

What really drew us back here was the new Balkan grill menu. We went for the works in the form of the Mejes├┐ano Meso, or mixed grill. This includes cevapcici, the traditional Montenegrin sausage; pljeskavici, flat patties that go into “yugoburgers”; sudz├┐ukice, lamb sausage similar in flavor to Moroccan merguez, but less spicy; and pecenje, roasted veal.

The sausages adhere to the old family recipes in all ways but one: The amount of fat is reduced in recognition of modern health concerns. They have in common a hearty garlicky flavor, and also share a particularly springy texture. The pecenje (roasted veal) was rather undistinguished by itself, but came to life with a light sauce served on the side. The meats are topped with Montenegrin feta and served over French fries and surrounded by seasoned roasted ready peppers. You are meant to combine a bite of meat with a bit of potato, cheese and roasted red pepper on your fork. This approach works splendidly.

Dino’s also has a full and a pretty serious wine list. The bottles are on display in the back room, which also doubles as a dance floor. In keeping with our mission, we sampled some Balkan wines — two Croatian, one Montenegrin. None were memorable, but it’s kind of fun to stay regional. In that spirit, you can also sample rakija, the Montenegrin version of grappa, or slivovitz, similar to grappa but made with plum wine.

The Bottom Line

By emphasizing its ethnic roots, Dino’s may have found its calling. While its Italian offerings are first rate, it’s the Balkan stuff that makes this place unique. With a full bar, Dino’s is an entertainment venue as well. Tuesdays are open mic night with Keith Kurtis on the piano, Wednesdays are for salsa dancing lessons, and Thursdays bring live Greek music. Fridays and Saturdays mean late night Balkan music from 11 p.m., and on Sundays there is belly dancing. Dino himself gives cooking lessons once a month in the kitchen on Saturdays for adults, and on Sundays for children. Sounds like something for everyone.

Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger’s restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by e-mail at qnsfoodie@aol.com.

Dino’s

29-35 Newtown Ave.

Astoria, NY 11103

718-267-2771

dinosrestaurantastoriany.com

Price Range: Appetizers: $6-15, Entrees: $15-30

Cuisine: Italian and Montenegrin

Setting: Exposed brick, artistic giclee photos of the homeland

Service: Friendly, professional

Hours: Lunch and dinner daily

Reservations: Optional

Alcohol: Full license

Parking: Street

Dress: Casual

Children: Children’s menu

Music: Live music Wednesdays through Sundays. Check Web site for schedule.

Takeout: Yes

Credit Cards: Yes

Noise Level: Acceptable

Handicap Accessible: Yes

Updated 5:56 pm, October 10, 2011
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