Can a restaurant be a neighborhood place and also a fine-dining establishment? La Famiglia, the restaurant that replaced Brasserie Tatin, is trying to be both, as many upscale eating places in this economy are. For the most part, it succeeds.

It succeeds not by offering sandwiches on the dinner menu or early-bird specials, but by having a staff that's exceedingly friendly (except for our waiter) and attentive. The personable owner, Dino Zeytinoglu, meets and greets, shaking hands with customers as they leave and thanking them for coming. I'll bet by your third visit he remembers your name.

He's also keeping prices under $30 for entrees, with food that is high quality. A year or so ago, that would have been cause for rejoicing. Finally, we would have said, the neighborhood (on the edge of Guilford and Roland Park) has a good, affordable Italian restaurant.

Alas, I'm not so sure people consider that affordable anymore. We'll see once La Famiglia's newness wears off.

Meanwhile, customers are flocking to the restaurant as the hottest new spot to eat osso buco and seafood risotto and be cocooned in the comfortable, newly renovated dining room. The decor changes are mostly cosmetic, but effective.

Brasserie Tatin's wavy, burnt-orange banquettes are still in place, but the aqua touches are gone, replaced by the warmer earth tones of the Mediterranean. The room doesn't seem quite so crowded, even when every table is filled. It's a nice place to be.

Our evening started off with one glitch: The hostess couldn't find our reservation, even though the restaurant had called my friend twice to make sure we were coming. She was super nice about it, but it meant she had to scramble to find us another table, and we were left waiting around while she did.

Once we were seated, things got better. True, our waiter seemed mildly uninterested in his job (when we asked him to compare two chiantis, for instance, he shrugged); but he was very efficient. Given the choice, I'd rather have efficiency.

La Famiglia's menu is traditional Italian, with a few more locally oriented daily specials offered (such as flounder stuffed with crab meat). Your dinner might start with something as simple as lightly dressed red, green and yellow roasted peppers or as elaborate as a hot antipasto for two that showcases four or five items.

La Famiglia's version of clams casino could be improved by cooking the bacon longer. But otherwise it's very close to the original recipe, without a thick blanket of crumbs. The garlic and butter enhance but don't dominate the tender clams.

Order the fat little mussels and you'll be given the choice of white or red sauce. I didn't try the red sauce, but the white sauce is so good I wouldn't dream of recommending anything else. It involves white wine and garlic, of course, but is so beautifully balanced you'll want to lap it up without waiting for a spoon. Luckily, there is excellent rustic baguette and focaccia to use instead.

My friend was rushing the season by ordering the caprese salad, but the kitchen does the best it can with out-of-season tomatoes, creamy fresh mozzarella and basil.

Mussels, shrimp and clams in a delicate seafood-tomato broth can be had as either an appetizer or a main course. It's a specialty of the house, which we tried as an entree. Pleasant, but not as recommendation-worthy as the other three specialties we had.

There are no surprises here, but this isn't a restaurant where you want surprises. You come here for good home cooking disguised as haute cuisine: the dreamily rich risotto studded with chewy porcini mushroom slices or rosy beef medallions in a lake of rich red-wine sauce.

La Famiglia has a smaller version (priced accordingly) of the gargantuan, very expensive veal chop that's the specialty of many Little Italy restaurants. It wasn't the most tender veal chop I'd ever had, but was full of flavor. It comes with grilled eggplant, peppers and squashes.

All entrees also come with pasta in marinara sauce; a vegetable can be substituted. But at La Famiglia, surely no one is on a low-carb diet. What a waste that would be.

Three desserts are made in house, and they fire on all cylinders. A creamy, foamy zabaglione sauce flavored with marsala over fresh berries was my personal favorite, but the cheesecake was a close second: rich and dense, with nothing extraneous to get in the way of sheer cheesecake goodness. The tiramisu is more than respectable, but pales in comparison to the first two.

So La Famiglia is off to a flying start, with any new-restaurant kinks pretty much worked out by now, judging from how the kitchen and serving staff handled the crowd the night I was there. You just have to keep in mind that the restaurant is a throwback to when Little Italy was the center of Italian eating in Baltimore. That's not a bad thing, and Baltimore seems to have been quick to embrace this newcomer.

la famiglia
Address: 105 W. 39th St., Tuscany- Canterbury

Hours: Open for lunch Monday through Friday, nightly for dinner

Prices: Appetizers: $6-$24, entrees: $19.75-$28

Contact: 443-449-5555, lafamigliabaltimore.com

Food: ***

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: ***

[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]


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