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Thursday, Aug. 12, 2004 05:16 am

Outdoor-dining options abound in Springfield

Photo by Nick Steinkamp

Is there any better way to enjoy the warm-weather months than to dine in the open air? Food just seems to taste better when it's served outdoors in the sunshine.

At one time, the choices for outdoor dining in Springfield were few. But, fortunately, more restaurants this year are responding to customer demand for dining al fresco, even if it just means setting up a few plastic tables and chairs on the sidewalk. Several of these restaurants offering outdoor dining are located along busy streets and are ideal for people-watching; others provide a quiet retreat in which to break bread.

Among the city's most picturesque and inviting areas in which to dine outside is the 200 block of South Sixth Street. Hanging baskets are filled with lush tropical plants, white trellises are covered in flowering vines, and tubs of herbs and market umbrellas are everywhere, making this one of Springfield's prettiest stretches of sidewalk. And the food is great at each of the restaurants located there.

For breakfast, the Trout Lily Café, 218 S. Sixth St., is one of my favorite spots in which to enjoy a cup of coffee and a slice of spinach-and-feta quiche on Saturday mornings after shopping at the Old Capitol Farmers' Market. Bagels, homemade apricot scones, and butter cake also make great midmorning snacks, and you can wash them down with one of the interesting variety of iced coffee drinks or fruit-and-green-tea smoothies. The yellow walls of this eclectic, colorful café feature work by local artists, and musicians often play during the lunch hour.

Andiamo!, 206 S. Sixth St., is a perfect place for homemade bread, and chocolate fondue with fresh fruit tastes even better when you're sitting outside at Z Bistro, 220 S. Sixth St. For dinner, there's no better spot than Maldaner's, 222 S. Sixth St. It's a great place in which to enjoy a glass of wine and one of many dishes prepared by chef Michael Higgins with seasonal local produce.

If it's a quiet midday retreat you're looking for, try dessert and coffee at Incredibly Delicious, 925 S. Seventh St. Enjoy such lunch specials as the Asian-style chicken-breast salad, vegetable quiche, and spinach salad in the peaceful setting just south of downtown's hustle and bustle. The bakery/café is located in the lower level of the restored Weber House, a 19th-century Italianate mansion. Chef Patrick Groth lives with his family above the bakery. The house is surrounded by an antique iron fence, and a brick pathway leads to the café and small outdoor patio surrounded by lattice panels. You almost feel as if you've found a secret hideaway in which to savor a flavored latté and fresh croissant.

The lushly landscaped patio area at La Sorella, 3325 Robbins Rd., is the perfect spot in which to enjoy peanut pasta or homemade pizza. The outdoor tables are surrounded by blooming perennials, and the atmosphere is refreshingly quiet and private. The restaurant serves Italian and American dishes with a twist, including pasta con broccoli, pasta carbonara, peanut pasta, spinach salad, and crêpes with walnuts and Gorgonzola. A highlight is the basket of freshly baked warm bread brought to the table to start your meal.

Here are a few other places to try:

Augie's Front Burner, 109 S. Fifth St. Recently added outdoor seating lets customers enjoy chef August Mrozowski's duck nachos and pear salad in the open air overlooking the Old State Capitol.

Barrel Head, 1577 W. Wabash Ave. An outdoor beer garden provides the setting for a slice of pizza, fried catfish, or horseshoe.

Bentoh's, 213 S. Fifth St. Sushi, salads, and more are served at several outdoor tables.

Cecil's, 530 N. First St. A large enclosed patio dotted with umbrellas is a popular place in which to dine on burgers and chicken wings.

Carolyn's, 418 Monroe St. (inside the Food Mart). Order an egg-salad sandwich, slice of pie, or fresh salad from the glass case inside, then enjoy it outdoors. You can also grab a few grocery items to take home.

Sunrise Café, 1201 S. Second St. Hearty breakfast dishes and horseshoes taste better on the patio.

El Presidente Burritos, corner of Sixth and Monroe streets. This tiny eatery, which serves up such unique burrito combinations as black bean and avocado, has doubled its size by setting up outdoor tables.

Norb Andy Tabarin, 518 E. Capitol Ave. Popular with politicians, Norb Andy's offers a great view of the Capitol.

Panera Bread, 3101 West White Oaks Dr. This chain serves up salads, soups, and sandwiches and provides ample outdoor seating.

Robbie's Restaurant, 4 S. Old State Capitol Plaza. Overlooking the Old State Capitol, this popular sandwich stop also serves salads and homemade pie. Great for people-watching.

Tuscany, 3123 Robbins Rd. A patio area provides a casual, private atmosphere in which to enjoy for upscale Italian food.

Hospital offers healthy recipes

Besides abundant fresh produce, there's another reason to shop for your fruits and vegetables at the Old Capitol Farmers' Market. St. John's Hospital offers free nutritional information and healthy recipes at its tent each Wednesday through Oct. 30.

Here's a sample recipe:

Italian-Style Zucchini

Vegetable-oil spray
6 medium zucchini, thinly sliced (about 6 cups)
1 teaspoon olive oil
3/4 cup sliced onion
2 large tomatoes, thinly sliced
1 1/4 teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon salt-free all-purpose seasoning
3/4 teaspoon dried oregano
4 oz. nonfat or part-skim mozzarella, shredded (1 cup)
1/3 cup grated Parmesan
2 tablespoons finely snipped fresh parsley

Preheat oven to 375°F. Lightly spray a 2-quart casserole dish with vegetable-oil spray. Put zucchini in a saucepan with enough water to cover the squash by half an inch. Bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer for 4 or 5 minutes or until tender. Drain. Transfer zucchini to a large bowl. Heat olive oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté onions until translucent, 2 or 3 minutes.

Add onions, tomatoes, basil, all-purpose seasoning, and oregano to zucchini, stirring well. Spoon half of the zucchini mixture into casserole dish and sprinkle with mozzarella. Add remaining zucchini mixture. Sprinkle with Parmesan. Bake, uncovered, for 25 to 30 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley.

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