Dinner began with a complimentary appetizer of four small but fresh mushroom caps heaped with minced vegetables bound with Parmesan and lightly touched with olive oil. Crusty, textured country Italian bread was served both as warmed rolls and as wonderfully fragrant garlic bread.
Gamberoni Barone ($6.95), a memorable appetizer, was three huge sauteed shrimp sprinkled with parsley and seated in a sweet brandy-Dijon-garlic sauce, garnished with fresh basil.
Smoked salmon ($5.95), just as tantalizing, was thin strips of Norwegian salmon topping a mound of diced potatoes and carrots bound with mascarpone cheese and ringed with a colorful confetti of crunchy radicchio and lettuce garnished with chopped black olives.
Homemade soups included a big bowl of pesto-flavored minestrone ($2.50) so thick with celery, carrots, pasta, peas, yellow bell peppers, potatoes cabbage and parsley you could nearly stand the spoon upright. A similiarly generous portion of stracciatella ($3) was rich, piping-hot chicken broth filled with fresh spinach and drizzled egg.
Crisp salad of iceberg lettuce, thin carrot strips, a half-slice of tomato, a radish and a thick cucumber slice was bathed in a creamy vinaigrette so tangy it puckered my lips.
The main dishes were irresistible. The Avanti combination (a bargain $15.95), was a big, flavorful lobster tail and a tender, sauteed chicken breast garnished with artichoke hearts, coated with an elegant, velvety white- wine-lemon sauce flecked with chopped tomatoes.
Veal Sassi ($14.50) brought two huge, fresh-off-the-grill tenderloins with appealing charcoal flavors, served with wild mushrooms and intensely flavored sun-dried tomatoes in a rich sarmoriglio dressing of olive oil, white wine, lemon and fresh basil. Potatoes sprinkled with rosemary and sauteed string beans were excellent.
A cinnamon-flavored baked pear ($3 on the menu, but $3.25 on the check) was sauced with barolo, topped with mascarpone, the Italian whipped cream-like cheese, and served with biscotti, sweet Italian cookies. Rum-besotted pound cake flavored with brandy and chocolate made an unusually delicious zuppa Inglese ($3.25).
My waiter was efficient but brusque and distinctly unfriendly.
The pleasant, uncomplicated decor includes gray walls and darker gray wainscoting brightened with photographs of Italian scenes, mostly of Venice.
The restaurant has no liquor license, but patrons may bring their own spirits.
529 Old Marlton Pike & Cropwell Road, Marlton, 596-7173
Open: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; dinner 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Fri., until 11 p.m. Sat., 4-9:30 p.m. Sun.
Price range: Appetizers average $5.50, entrees $15
Credit cards: Major cards
Nonsmoking section: Yes
Facilities for handicapped: Yes