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Thursday, Feb. 12, 2004 05:34 pm

The perfect place to cheat (on your diet)

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La Sorella Ristorante is the perfect place to cheat on your low-carb diet -- and not just a little bit. Really throw caution to the wind and indulge in pasta, cheese gnocchi, homemade bread and wood-fired pizza.

It's easy to do here. In fact, one of the highlights of dining at La Sorella arrives at your table even before you look at the menu. A complimentary basket of freshly baked warm bread is brought to your table to begin your meal and is a good indicator of what's ahead. The thick slices of bread, made with black olives, tomatoes and cheese, and peppers and herbs, are delicious.

Many favorite Italian family recipes are featured on the menu, according to Maureen Egizzi, who opened the restaurant ten years ago with her parents, George and Teresa Egizzi, and her sister Mary Jo Egizzi.

Maureen does most of the cooking while her 85-year-old father greets customers. George, who was a wholesale grocer for Springfield Baker Supply, owned The Italian American, an importing company that sold salami, olive oil and other Italian foods. In a nod to his background, the restaurant still sells cheese, salami, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and specialty items like pasta bowls, garlic presses and cannoli makers in a small room at the back of the business. Regular customers eagerly await the chocolate- and Amaretto-covered pecans sold here during the Christmas season.

The warm, salmon-colored walls and large stone fireplace in the main dining room add to the inviting environment. And despite white linen tablecloths, it's a comfortable place where you fit in whether you're wearing formal evening wear for a special night out on the town, or in blue jeans eating pizza with your family.

For lunch, a variety of salads, soups and sandwiches are offered. But my favorite is the Pasta Con Broccoli, a blend of penne noodles and fresh broccoli roasted in white wine. The pink sauce is a rich blend of tomatoes and cream that manages not to overpower the dish. The Pasta Carbonara is also delicious, made with traditional Alfredo sauce, crispy bacon and fettuccine noodles. Other options include Andouille Sausage Jambalaya, Peanut Pasta and Three Cheese Lasagna.

Appetizers include shrimp and crab cakes, crepes with walnuts and gorgonzola, roasted eggplant roll-ups and antipasti. If you want to start out your meal with true comfort food, try the Italian potato torta, made with a crust of mashed potatoes, topped with marinara sauce and mozzarella and parmesan cheese.

For dinner, there are the expected pasta offerings like Smoked Salmon and Alfredo Penne, Roasted Vegetable Risotto, Sundried Tomato Pesto, Tortellini with Italian Sausage Sauce and Linguine and Meatballs. But some of the more interesting items include Mushroom Manicotti (handmade crepes filled with ricotta cheese and sautéed portabellas in a white wine reduction, then covered in marinara and Alfredo sauces) and Sundried Tomato Pesto and Chicken Pasta (made with a rich pesto, garlic chicken and artichoke hearts.)

Even the Gnocchi with Broccoli Sauce is made with handmade cheese dumplings, instead of the potato variety usually found on Italian menus. The light pockets of dough are tossed with a creamy tomato sauce flavored with fresh broccoli.

Meat options include Beef Braciole (sliced rib eye rolled with roasted vegetables and Italian bread crumb stuffing and braised with aromatic tomato-based sauce. The Dried Fruit Stuffed Pork Loin is an interesting mix of spicy Italian sausage and chewy, sweet fruit, which provides flavor to the pork.

Pizzas are also a good choice, but these aren't the pies slapped with sauce and sausage. First of all, the crust is very thin and crispy -- almost like a cracker at the edges. Then the wood-fired oven pizzas are topped with interesting ingredients that make you forget all about the cheap ham and cheese special that's delivered to your door.

These varieties include Muffuletta (Italian hot ham, salami, cheeses and green olives in spicy tomato sauce) and Potato and Gorgonzola. There's also a Fajita pizza covered with pesto, red onion, bell peppers, Italian beef, sour cream and salsa. On a recent evening, my husband and I shared a barbecue chicken pizza. The tangy chicken was topped with jalapenos, red onions, black olives and cheddar cheese. In addition to salads, we shared a pizza for $8.50, which was more than enough for a meal for two.

So you've been missing your carbs lately, go ahead and indulge. This is the place to do it.

 

La Sorella Ristorante is located at 3325 Robbins Rd. 217-546-1680. Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Tue.-Sat.


How big is your head?

La Bamba, the Champaign-based company known for "burritos as big as your head," has arrived in the capital city.

Known for its fast Mexican food, massive portions and late-night hours, the family-owned chain's newest store is located on Macarthur Boulevard, at the site of the former Dagwoods Deli.

The LaBamba Mexican Restaurants Group was founded by brothers Ramiro and Antonio Aguas. In 1987, they opened a small, two-table Mexican eatery near the University of Illinois campus. The company has grown to 22 stores, with locations in five states. While the restaurants originally targeted students in college towns, today the emphasis is on locating in larger cities.

La Bamba features fast and casual, cooked-to-order Mexican meals such as rice and bean burritos in three sizes, in the $6-$7 price range, as well as a selection of "value meals."

Located at 1731 S. MacArthur Blvd., Springfield. Phone: 217-698-5945. Fax: 217-698-5987. Hours:10:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Sun.-Thu. and 10:30 a.m.-3 a.m. Fri.-Sat.

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