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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

GOURMET'S NOTEBOOK: Giardino Italiano

That on any given night, there are as many Italians as Russians in Giardino Italiano, all gesturing emphatically and slurping up their spaghetti, is a good sign. The three sitting next to us and the real roses on the table helped make the painted vines, veranda and distant sea almost believable. With the rich red house wine, we were in Sicily.

Upon arriving, my dinner partner and I were relieved of our coats and pointed through the corridor to a small cafe with loving couples seated at tables covered in mint green. A Russian woman belted out off-key versions of "New York, New York" and Madonna's "All By Myself."

For faster, cheaper Italian fare, the cafe offers salads and meals from a deli case. A full bar keeps the lovers leering. But the place to eat is the restaurant just to the back of the cafe, where the atmosphere is ballad-free and classier with its wall-size fish tank, silver table settings and no-drip candles.

Opened two years ago by Sicilians, and boasting a Sicilian chef, Giardino Italiano, or The Italian Garden, is a great bet for authentic food from the Mediterranean. Aside from the great food, the atmosphere was bright and cozy, and the service was helpful and personable. A few seconds after we sat down, Paul, our Russian server, jumped to attention by delivering menus, flaky Italian rolls and curlicues of butter on ice. He then brought the complimentary appetizer, a fried ball of rice, spinach and spices served on a doily.

With refreshing honesty, he advised us on what to order and what, quite frankly, stank. "Don't get the mushroom soup," he said, screwing up his face, "Blech." We started with a lightly dressed fresh green salad (30 rubles) and Antipasto Mediterraneo, (60 rubles) a well-orchestrated medley of four cold vegetable salads -- sauteed mushrooms, grilled eggplant, steamed garlic broccoli and sauteed peppers and onions -- all of which were doused in a reasonable amount of oil and maintained their inherent vegetable integrity. Other appetizers, priced from 60 to 145 rubles, included fish salads and carpaccio.

My friend chose as her main dish the Penne all 'Arrabbiata (pasta with eggplant) for 70 rubles, and ended by mopping the spicy red sauce with the roll until the plate was clean. I chose the Linguini all 'Astice (pasta with lobster) for 145 rubles. Served beside a curled lobster tail, the linguini was soaked in red sauce with nuggets of lobster meat. It was excellent. Unfortunately, turning over the lobster tail in hopes of finding more white meat, I found the shell empty. The meat was all in the sauce.

The menu specializes in fish dishes, but also offers meat. Entrees run from 70 to 270 rubles.For dessert, we were disappointed to learn they had run out of Tiramisu and Chocolate Cake, so we settled on Torta alla Frutta (45 rubles) -- sliced fruit in a creamy, lemon-tinged medium -- and Strawberry Mousse (45 rubles), which rivaled Hubba Bubba bubble gum in bursting with fruit flavor. The cappuccino (25 rubles) could have been a double, it was so strong.

Everything was served in moderate portions, and at the end of the evening we felt satisfied and not stuffed-to-the-gills sick.

Giardino Italiano, 37 Leninsky Prospekt, on the corner under green awnings. Tel: 958-1509, 958-1292. Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Nearest metro: Leninsky Prospekt.