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Wednesday, July 5, 2000

Stuffed agenda

Posted on Wed, Jul 5, 2000 at 4:00 AM

When you grow up in an Italian family, dining out rarely means Italian food. Why go to a restaurant if Mom makes it better at home? The sole exception for us were occasional visits to a nearby family-owned joint. Besides an acceptably rich marinara, it offered more entrees than Mom's recipe file, semiformal waiters and an unintendedly kitschy dining room boasting the aggressive bad taste second-generation 65-year-olds find comforting. ("Look, hon, these plastic flowers never need watering!") Perhaps this is why dining at Peppino's feels like so familiar to me.

Located waaaaay out east in Oviedo (two miles north of University, at 434 and Carigan), Peppino's had been around for 13 years, though it looks sprung from Astoria, Queens, circa 1972. There's is nothing remotely trendy within these walls or on the menu. But if you want traditional Italian fare in a place that your parents -- or at least my parents -- would love, Peppino's fills the ticket nicely.

For a recent dinner, a friend and I started with two appetizers, "escargot cognac" ($6.50) and "zuppa di mussels" ($6.95). The escargot, sautéed in a butter/garlic sauce and served in mushroom caps, were only average. The sauce and the texture of the mushrooms overwhelmed the escargot. On the other hand, the mussels, served on the half-shell, were plump and tasty, kicked up nicely by a spicy marinara sauce.

For a second appetizer, we opted for a small "pizza primavera" ($7.95), topped with sausage, onions, mushrooms and sliced tomatoes. The crust was perfect, crisp on the bottom and substantial without being doughy, and the toppings were so fresh they made your mouth tingle (especially the sausage). This pizza was the surprise hit of the evening.

For entrees, my friend ordered the "shrimp and scallop bianca" ($15.95), while I called for the "chicken a la Maria" ($13.95). Both were excellent, but the chicken was a clear winner on both our cards. The bianca, served over linguine, offered a delectable white-wine-and-butter sauce and robust scallops, but the shrimp were a tad overcooked and rubbery. On a different night, this would have been fantastic, but during our visit it was merely good.

The chicken, wisely recommended by our excellent waiter, was a huge portion of rolled chicken breast cut in four pieces and stuffed with spinach, cheese and spices and served in a hearty "pink" sauce. (It looked more light brown to me, but maybe that was the lighting.) Coated with a thin (perhaps egg?) batter, the meat was succulent and moist without a hint of greasiness.

One tip for dining at Peppino's: Trust your waiter's recommendations. We noticed that everything he suggested was excellent, or turned out to be excellent when it was served to another table after we chose something else. If you do that -- and order a pizza -- you'll immensely enjoy this Oviedo tradition.


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