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Tuesday, May 11, 1999

Fancy but friendly

Posted on Tue, May 11, 1999 at 4:00 AM

We didn't make the connection at first, but anytime you visit Heathrow, the community where frozen-pizza baron Jeno Paulucci has played such a pivotal role for more than a decade, you can assume he's somehow involved. Luigino's Pasta and Steak House is indeed Paulucci's brain child, taking its title from his formal name. (Jeno's Pasta and Steak House definitely would not suit this upscale restaurant.)

Even though it's set in a shopping plaza and mini-office park, Luigino's initially strikes you with the look and tone of a country club. Enter through the polished glass doors into the mahogany-accented foyer to be led to table in the dining room, which is dominated by expansive waterfront views of palatial homes and golf-course links. Add to that the Continental menu with entrees that top out at $29.95, and this restaurant would seemingly qualify as a selection for special occasions.

But we quickly got over the imposing setting and relaxed when we found the mood to be lively and casual, with diners dressed in khakis and oxfords. And the couple at the next table felt comfortable enough to engage us in a friendly conversation about what another table had ordered.

The menu is up to par, as we discovered, beginning with our appetizers. My guest's "antipasto misto" ($8.95) was a delicious presentation of a platter of the best cuts of tender, salty prosciutto, salami slices, ham and mozzarella. A luscious, marinated artichoke was carved open to reveal a firm, meaty center. We also enjoyed "calamari fritti," priced rather low at $5.95. The calamari rings were curiously narrow and slender, but the fried batter was light-tasting with a hint of "pomodoro" sauce.

There is a substantial pasta menu that includes primavera versions of penne dishes and a delicious lobster ravioli ($18.95) that's seasoned with saffron and topped with a pink sauce of shiitake mushrooms. But my guest raved about the frutti di mare ($23.95), which included a sautéed jumble of lobster, shrimp, clams, scallops, mussels and calamari. These were served over a bed of linguine with a surprisingly delicate marinara sauce. We also enjoyed "filet Guiseppe" ($24.95), a dish reminiscent of beef Wellington. The filet mignon was stuffed with prosciutto and cheeses that were a bit too salty, but it was baked in a towering puff pastry and served with bordelaise and béarnaise sauce.

The wait staff was watchful throughout the meal; water goblets and coffee cups stayed full, and leftovers were discreetly boxed up and presented with the check. Luigino's Pasta and Steak House may not break new culinary ground, but on the north side of town, it stands out for its consistently delicious menu and picturesque setting.

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