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College students and cheap, ethnic eateries seem to go hand in hand. Where there's a school of higher learning, you'll usually find a stable of offbeat, funky restaurants where the young and impoverished can chart untried culinary territory.

For sure, the University of Central Florida area needs more of these type of restaurants. But for the last nine years, while the surrounding area exploded with cookie-cutter subdivisions and food chains, the low-key Falafel Cafe has been dishing out a taste of the Middle East to students and others hooked on the culture's culinary favors.

Falafel Cafe is quite small, with less than two dozen tables. There's no view to speak of, but an enormous painting dominates the entrance, capturing a scene from the Beirut waterfront. Back in the 1970s, that's where chef Hind Dajani perfected her recipes as a mother of four. Piped-in Middle Eastern music enhances the cuisine. And while service isn't always fast, it's usually friendly.

Descriptions of each dish make the menu reader-friendly. And if you can't commit to any one item, skip the entrees and fill up on tapas-style appetizers, which are in the $2 to $5 range.

Vegetarian dishes are a Middle Eastern strength, and Dajani is particularly deft with the namesake falafels ($3.99) – fried croquettes made with crushed garbanzo and fava beans, onions and a mixed bag of seasonings. They're delicious by themselves or dipped in the accompanying tahini sauce, a thick paste of ground sesame seeds. Kibbe balls ($4.99) are similar, except they're made with bulghur wheat and seasoned ground beef.

Falafel Cafe's hummus ($2.49) is creamy and tempting, made with pureed garbanzo beans, sesame sauce, olive oil and garlic. A splash of lemon brings out the naturally nutty flavors. Baba ghanoush ($2.49) gets a similar treatment, made of eggplant mashed to a pulp and mixed with yogurt. Use it as a dip for pita bread, or better yet, ask for the garlic bread pita ($1.99), which is brushed with butter and minced garlic.

The success of the simple "cedar salad" ($7.99) is in the fresh ingredients. Bright greens are topped with herb-crusted chicken kababs, olives and peppers. Pickled turnips add hot-pink color.

When you're in the mood for warm, hearty Middle Eastern cooking, you'll find it here.

Franco Petrarca always had grander visions for his humble pizzeria, visions that would gradually be realized through a series of menu tweaks, interior design facelifts and personnel changes. But the coup de grâce came earlier this year when he convinced Rosario Limonio, former head chef of Winter Park’s critically acclaimed Limoncello and Allegria restaurants, to run the relatively small kitchen at Famas and transport some culinary legitimacy to the I-Drive corridor. No question Limonio is a maestro of Italian cuisine – multiple requests for him to appear on Food Network’s Iron Chef are a testament to his kitchen mettle. While he bides his time gathering the right team for that boob-tube pressure cooker, he’s honing his skills inside this modest trattoria.

Famas has a split personality, with a brightly lit dine-and-dash left wing and a hushed, moderately romantic dining area to the right, but there’s no disorder when it comes to the character of the dishes. Limonio is on top of his game, brandishing a menu covering all regions of the Boot and, in the case of the insalata di mele ($8.95), a bit of the Pacific Northwest as well. The simple salad of Braeburn apple slices circling baby greens capped with gorgonzola crumbles and walnuts made for a vitalizing start, while artichoke oil and fresh basil added a bold dimension to the sun-dried tomato vinaigrette.

The chunky sauce in the cozze all’ arrabiata ($9.95) upstaged the generous heaping of mussels, the spicy bath of ripe, plump tomatoes offering plenty of zest to go along with the smack of garlic. If I had had additional wedges of garlic bread, that bowl would’ve been sopped clean.

Two mains – filetto al funghi porcini and agnello al rosmarino – were offered together as a special for $25.95, an absolute steal and a fine example of the chef’s talents. The filet’s silken coating of cognac and porcini mushroom sauce was just heavenly, as was the herbaceous rosemary-rubbed rack of lamb. The accompanying vegetable was a creative “burger” comprised of breaded eggplant, roasted red pepper, goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and artichokes. The side of rice was infused with wild mushrooms, walnuts and the robust smokiness of guanciale (wild boar jowls – a flavor many chefs replicate with the more readily available pancetta).

I could hear the chicken for the pollo marsala ($15.95) being pounded in the kitchen, and the result was a wonderfully moist slab crowned with button and porcini mushrooms. On past visits, I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying a decadent four-cheese gnocchi ($14.95), scrumptious gourmet pizza ($14.95) and risotto campagnola ($15.95), a sort of vegetarian take on the filetto al funghi porcini.

Petrarca’s commitment to pleasing his rising star results in huge benefits for diners, as you’ll be hard-pressed to find a dish unworthy of praise. Same goes for the dolci, also prepared by Limonio. Tiramisu ($5.95), simultaneously spongy and boozy, is a post-meal pick-me-up; cannoli ($4.50), with velvety ricotta, strikes the perfect crisp/fluffy balance; and if the lemon cake ($5.95) is available, don’t think twice – just order it.

The evening’s only downside was the service. Our harried waiter seemed unfamiliar with the menu, neglected to ensure silverware was on the table and was slow to clear away dishes. But given the superiority of the fare such miscues seem trivial; the real draw here is Limonio. He may not b

They're heavy on the Philly at Famous Phil's: names of city landmarks on the wallpaper, photos of the city everywhere, recent issues of Philadelphia magazine on the tables. The connection's even in the slogan, just in case you missed it: "Real Philly people making real Philly cheese steaks." (The editor in me wonders: Are they real people from Philly, or are they people who are really from Philly?)

So these had better be some fine cheese steaks, right? After all, one does not invoke the hometown of the cheese steak lightly.

On that score, Phil's is hit and miss. The cheese steaks themselves ($2.99 to $5.25) are good; not great, but a notch above the cheese steaks you'll get at, say, a sub shop. They crank 'em out right out in the open on a big flat grill, and the smell of searing beef and frying onions brings back fond memories of carnivals past. I found the meat flavorful but dry, not sopping and juicy the way a memorable sandwich should be.

Then there's everything else at Phil's. I had an all-American hoagie ($3.99) that was the most uninspired sub I've encountered outside of a Subway. The Italian wedding soup ($1.99) was indistinguishable from canned, and the onion rings ($1.89) were mushy on the inside and left a puddle of grease in the bottom of the container.

The place was packed with Full Sail students, and most of them were eating cheese steaks; the wise move is to do the same and not stray too far down the menu.

I wasn't thrilled with the prospect of eating an entire meal at a pub. Past experiences with pub grub – here and abroad – led me to believe that "authentic" doesn't necessarily mean "great." But the proprietors of Fiddler's Green prove that a focus on flavor, presentation and service can spell "gourmet" for traditional Irish cuisine.

The restaurant retains the cozy atmosphere of its predecessors, Mulvaney's and Prince of Wales. It's got the same ornate woodwork, dart boards, Irish-themed knickknacks and entertainment stage. Now, there's a separate dining room that's upscale and intimate in a country-inn sort of way.

Fiddler's Green offers a full selection of draft ales, lagers and stouts, which you can order by the pint or half-pint. While my guest and I waited, our server brought us a basket of thick, crumbly scones, which nicely offset the beer.

We split an order of lightly browned potato pancakes with grated cheddar and scallions ($6.50; $5.95) topped with smoked salmon or sour cream and chives. Other appetizers include steamed mussels ($7.50) and smoked fish spread ($5.50). Dieters will be glad to know that the menu also includes your basic salad assortment.

Along with a variety of sandwiches and burgers ($5.25-$8.95), Fiddler's entrees include standbys like corned beef and cabbage ($9.95); fish and chips, and "bangers and mash" (both $8.95). Among the more gourmet fare: grilled salmon with champagne sauce ($14.95) and roast duck ($15.95).

I ordered the "Hen in a Pot" ($7.95), a scrumptious variation on chicken pot pie. Instead of pie crust, the "pot" was topped, hat-like, with a flaky pastry. The stew below was piping hot with big chunks of tender chicken and vegetables, seasoned just right.

My companion stuck with another basic-but-hearty dish, Irish stew ($9.95). Once again, the seasonings – thyme, in this case – made this dish a standout. Presentation of both entrees was excellent, with extras like huge plates, fresh herbs and doilies. Desserts include bread and butter pudding, and blackberry/apple crumble ($3.95-$4.50). We were way too full to sample them.

Great service and excellent food mean Fiddler's Green is not like most Irish pubs; it's better.

Offbeat a.m.. fare ranges from a California vegetarian frittata to the meanest sausage-and-potatoes platter outside of Bavaria. Cheery, with generous portions and a limited lunch menu.

Offbeat a.m.. fare ranges from a California vegetarian frittata to the meanest sausage-and-potatoes platter outside of Bavaria. Cheery, with generous portions and a limited lunch menu.

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