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Amicci's is good, basic, plentiful and reasonable

It's no mystery why Amicci's has been so popular for so long. Open a restaurant with good, basic Italian food served in heaping portions and at reasonable prices, and people will come.

This Little Italy stalwart has changed quite a bit since it opened in 1990. Back then, it had 43 seats and a casual, sandwich-driven menu. Today, with a new dining area that opened in May, the restaurant seats 220, and the menu is mostly Italian entrees like lasagna, chicken parm and shrimp scampi, plus several pasta vegetarian dishes.

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Sauces are still made in-house, even though that now means the chef comes in at 4 in the morning to stir tomatoes and spices in the tiny kitchen, said Scott Panian, the restaurant's co-owner with Roland Keh.

I'm not saying Amicci's is perfect - some of the dishes are disappointingly bland - but it's pretty darn good.

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On a recent Saturday night, the tables were filled with the restaurant's usual mix of customers - families with babies, young couples holding hands across the colorful tablecloth, older couples enjoying a casual meal, friends sharing a night of good food.

The restaurant feels homey, with its hardwood floors and walls decorated with framed posters of Italian-themed flicks like The Godfather and La Dolce Vita. On the wall near us was a wonderful blown-up photograph of an audience with rapt faces watching one of the famous outdoor movies shown on Friday nights in the summer in Little Italy.

My advice is to skip the cold, uninteresting bread on the table to save room for the treats that await. (Don't worry - you won't suffer from a shortage of carbs.) A great way to start a meal here is with the antipasto for two, a bargain at $9 and really enough food for three. The large plate is piled high with fresh greens, roasted red peppers, marinated artichoke hearts and several kinds of pickled pepperoncini, all surrounded by slice after slice of prosciutto, salami and mozzarella.

To my mind, this gorgeous mess is better than the pane rotundo appetizer, billed by the restaurant as its signature dish. As the name implies, the centerpiece of this dish is a large, round loaf of bread. The bread is rubbed with garlic, toasted to chewy perfection and covered with a half-dozen fat, tender shrimp in a creamy sauce. Everything about this dish is fine, but it is neither innovative nor flavorful enough to carry the heavy burden of being the defining item at such a nice restaurant.

A Caesar salad featured a generous portion of fresh greens and beautiful homemade croutons, but the dressing lacked the tongue-tingling anchovy zing I crave in a Caesar salad.

Fat, tender shrimp and glorious, perfectly cooked mushrooms seemed to dominate our main courses. The shrimp and 'shrooms were tossed with pasta in both penne la rosa and pasta Isabella. Of the two, I preferred the Isabella, livened by slivers of prosciutto and a tasty tomato-marsala sauce. The creamy sauce of the penne la rosa was supposed to have sun-dried tomato garlic pesto, but tasted more of cream than anything else.

The delicious mushrooms also appeared in a tasty but sweet version of chicken marsala, sharing its rich wine sauce with meltingly tender chicken cutlets. This dish was served with a side of perfectly cooked spaghetti in a sprightly house-made tomato sauce.

The desserts at Amicci's vary daily. If cannolis are available, snag them. The crisp shells come from the nearby fabulous Vaccaro's Bakery, and the incredibly silky filling is made in-house. The shells are obviously filled right before serving, so they don't have time to get soggy.

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Two other chocolate desserts, a Snickers truffle cake and an Oreo mousse cake, were silky but tasted of freezer.

Even owner Panian noted that desserts are not the thing at Amicci's. The kitchen is too small to make them on the premises.

Amicci's

Where: 231 S. High St., Little Italy

Call: 410-528-1096

Open: Lunch and dinner daily

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Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers $3-$9; entrees $10.50-$15.50

Food: ***

Service: **1/2

Atmosphere: ***


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