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Franchise feast 

Biaggis is well worth a trip to the, er, lifestyle center

click to enlarge The food at Biaggis is as warm, rich and comforting as the atmosphere. - SUNNIE SACKS
  • Sunnie Sacks
  • The food at Biaggis is as warm, rich and comforting as the atmosphere.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes a chain restaurant is a good idea that caught on, not a soul-sucking corporate destroyer of individuality.

After several visits to Biaggi's, I'd have to put it in the former category. The prices are reasonable, the food is great, and that area of town desperately needed more restaurants. The only real drawback is finding parking at the new lifestyle-center-mall on a Friday night, since Biaggi's, Champs and P.F. Chang's are so close together there's barely room for a sidewalk between them.

Biaggi's extensive menu opens with appetizers that are easily big enough to share. The Crab and Lobster Al Forno is a warm, cheesy, creamy dip filled with crab (not krab), lobster, spinach and artichokes. My favorite appetizer is the Formaggi di Capra, in which mild goat cheese is flavored with garlic and herbs and baked, island-like, in a sea of robust marinara. You scoop up some of the melting cheese and the tomato sauce together on a Parmesan crisp, and you'll wonder why you even need to order an entree.

You can make an entire meal off the soup and salad menu. The soups are $3.95 a bowl, and the clam chowder I tried was full of nice, plump chewy clams and tender potatoes with a creamy broth that was perfect without being too rich. The house salad is a nice mix of greens with cucumbers, carrots, roasted peppers and a sprinkling of crunchy pine nuts with an herbed balsamic vinaigrette. And the Messina is flat-out fabulous, a combo of sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, a variety of olives, capers, red onions and cubed Ricotta Salata cheese, tossed with a red wine vinaigrette and served over field greens. Be warned before you order salad, however. They come in two sizes, and the smaller version is more than enough for two to share. (Many menu items are offered in two sizes so parties can order individually or family style, to share.)

The Ziti al Forno ($11.95) uses the same lobster cream sauce that the appetizer uses, but this time with the addition of shrimp, chicken, ham, red onion and ziti, all baked together into a rich, bubbling morass of cheesy delight. The Capellini di Mare ($13.95) is a pasta plate full of perfectly cooked angel-hair pasta, swimming in a spicy tomato-vegetable sauce filled with sauted shrimps, scallops and calamari, each cooked to its perfectly done point and not over- or undercooked -- no mean feat. This lovely archipelago comes topped with freshly steamed Prince Edward Island mussels and Little Neck clams.

Two very different sausage dishes show a deft hand in the kitchen. Rigatoni alla Toscana ($8.95/$12.95) combines the large tube pasta with extremely good and not greasy sausage, peppers and onions in a rich, long-simmered marinara sauce, topped with goat cheese and fresh basil. The Gemellini with Country Sausage (same price) combines the same sausage, for a completely different flavor, with garlic, a hint of chili flakes and peas in a mascarpone and vodka tomato cream sauce.

Not in a pasta mood? The Chicken alla Emilia ($12.95) raises chicken to new heights. Two chicken breast halves are stuffed with a divinely inspired mixture of fontina cheese, Italian ham and spinach, then grilled to perfection and served up juicy and leaking that luscious cheese. Or you could try a Fillet san Marzano ($18.95), an 8-ounce grilled filet mignon served with a tomato cream sauce. Some of the entrees are served with yummy, homey garlic mashed potatoes, and others come with crispy little potato croquettes. Both are scrumptious.

Personal 9-inch pizzas are available and while they are adequate, they're not worth a special trip. There's too much on the menu that is better, and is worth driving to the north end of town for. Like the sandwiches. The Portabello Balsamico ($6.25) combines balsamic-marinated grilled portobello mushrooms with eggplant, roasted peppers, red onions and goat cheese on Asiago ciabatta bread, with the right balance of chewy center and sturdy crust. The Smoked Turkey and Gouda panini ($6.75) layers turkey with smoked gouda, apple wood-smoked bacon and green onions on country bread, grilled till it's crispy on the outside and the cheese is gooey on the inside. And all the sandwiches come with homemade potato chips, crispy and salty and terribly addictive.

The desserts deserve special mention. In brief: the Semi-freddo -- vanilla ice cream in espresso -- is a coffee lover's dream. The crme brle was only OK, and the Chocolate Chip Banana Paradiso is both huge and rich, so make sure you're ready to share. The bread pudding is great if you like white chocolate, and Biaggi's version of Bananas Foster has one of the best caramel sauces around.

capsule

Biaggi's Ristorante Italiano

1805 Briargate Parkway

Open Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sundays 11 a.m. - 9 p.m.

Call 262-9500; reservations encouraged

  • Biaggis is well worth a trip to the, er, lifestyle center

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