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Thursday, Dec. 2, 2004 01:12 am

Get fired up about food

A cracking blaze at Tuscany hints at romance
Photo by Nick Steinkamp

Food just tastes better when it's eaten outside in the fresh air and warm sunshine. Even a lackluster lunch is enhanced by al fresco dining. But what to do during the dreary winter months? Try dining in front of a crackling fire.

The next time you're deciding where to dine, why not choose a place with an inviting fireplace to make your meal more special? A roaring fire can help make a meal cheerful and carefree. A quietly crackling blaze hints at romance.

Here are just a few options:

Tuscany -- The interior of this restaurant is painted to resemble an Italian patio, complete with crumbling stone walls, a blue sky, and a black iron fence adorned with perching birds. The large casual dining room features a gas fireplace on a back wall, near the kitchen.

The restaurant, which opened in 1999, serves some of the best fried calamari in town. Another specialty worth noting is the mostaccioli Siciliana (pasta topped with Italian sausage, peppers, and onions in a spicy marinara sauce). On a recent visit, I enjoyed delicious grilled mahi mahi with tropical salsa, served over fresh greens and accompanied by angelhair pasta. Entrées are served with a crisp green salad featuring the excellent house Italian dressing and warm, crusty bread paired with olive oil, garlic, and rosemary for dipping.

Tuscany is located at 3123 Robbins Rd.; 217-726-5343.

La Sorella Ristorante -- The thin, crispy wood-fired pizzas here are interesting and delicious but even better when you can enjoy them in front of the large stone fireplace in the main dining room.

The restaurant, which serves up favorite family recipes, is owned by George and Teresa Egizzi and daughters Maureen and Mary Jo. Another reason to come here: the freshly baked warm bread in a variety of flavors such as tomato and cheese, pepper, and black olives. Specials include pasta carbonara, gnocchi with broccoli sauce, and peanut pasta. Appetizers include roasted-eggplant roll-ups, antipasti, and Italian potato torta made with a crust of mashed potatoes and topped with marinara sauce and mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses.

La Sorella Ristorante is located at 3325 Robbins Rd.; 217-546-1680.

Mariah's -- Since opening last year in the former Fox Run Restaurant on the city's west side, this restaurant has become known for its varied menu, including steak and pasta dishes dressed with homemade red sauce. But the interior of the huge log structure -- which resembles a Colorado ski lodge -- is just as inviting, featuring wood-plank walls, antler chandeliers, and a circular fireplace, atop a stone platform, in the center of the dining room. The hearth is the best seat in the house, providing a cozy atmosphere in the spacious building, which tends to get noisy because of its size and soaring ceiling.

Mariah's is located at 3317 Robbins Rd.; 217-793-1900.

Cracker BarrelOld Country Store -- Not only does this chain restaurant do "home cooking" better than most, but it also has a fireplace that matches the servings: extra-large. Entrées such as chicken and dumplings and fried catfish are intended to fill your stomach, and the décor is designed to conjure up warm, fuzzy memories of the past. The interior walls resemble those of an old country store, with vintage advertising signs, farm equipment, photographs, and even kitchen appliances hanging from the walls.

Enjoy your corn muffins and chicken and noodles in front of the massive stone fireplace, which nearly covers one wall of the large interior. The fireplace burns real logs -- no dainty gas-powered heat box here.

Cracker Barrel is located at 5975 S. Sixth St.; 217-529-2290.

Morning Star Mercantile and Café -- Although I've recommended this Salisbury tearoom before for various reasons (the outdoor front porch is a great place for a summer lunch), it bears repeating that this is one of the most charming and coziest dining establishments around. The large rustic structure, made from salvaged barn timber, is a great place in which to enjoy chicken crêpes, homemade soups, and broccoli-and-raisin salad (a house specialty). But only during cold weather can you appreciate the heat from the stone fireplace, which was built to resemble those at New Salem. The worn wood floors, ceilings, and walls create an environment that feels like a comfy blanket on a chilly day.

The Morning Star Mercantile and Café is located at 6141 Main St. in Salisbury (12 miles northwest of Springfield); 217-626-2022. Open only for lunch.

Cookbooks for the holidays

Two locally produced cookbooks offer a great way to share the taste of the Land of Lincoln.

• The Agritourism Committee for Central Illinois' cookbook Home Grown in Central Illinois includes recipes from area farmers, agriculture associations, and businesses. Recipes focus on the bounty of central Illinois, from fruit to vegetables to ostrich to rabbit.

Recipes from Springfield-area businesses and state associations are included, including rhubarb pie from Jefferies Orchard, soy-chocolate drop cookies from Spectrum Foods, and honey-pecan pie from the Illinois State Beekeepers Association in Pleasant Plains. The book also contains suggestions for decreasing the amount of fat in your diet and other information.

To order, call the Central Illinois Tourism Development Office at 217-525-7980 or send e-mail to citc@eosinic.com.

• Not only does the Junior League of Springfield provide a wealth of recipes for treats such as holiday cranberry ring and spiced pecans in its Honest to Goodness Cookbook, but it also donates proceeds from book sales to area community projects and charities. The cookbooks may be ordered already wrapped in holiday packaging and topped with a brass cookie cutter in the shape of the top hat worn by Abraham Lincoln.

The cookbook is sold by many Springfield vendors, including the Illinois State Museum, Barnes & Noble, B. Dalton, Chapter One, Details, and the Lincoln Home Visitor Center. You can also obtain one by calling 217-787-7802 or visiting www.jlsil.org.

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