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Spaghetti western: The tiramisu triangle

Milano Cafe, Verona and Bella Sera bring their own Italian accents to Travis County

Mike Sutter

The tale of three Italian restaurants that opened this year west of Austin can be told in prologue through their tiramisu, the ubiquitous dessert of mascarpone cheese, espresso and ladyfingers. The better the tiramisu, the better the food.

At Bella Sera on Bee Cave Road, the tiramisu ($5.95) comes in a clear plastic mold that telegraphs its overly sweet mass-produced flavor. At Verona in Oak Hill, it's a big slice of creamy, layered cake with nice curls of dark chocolate and just a whispered implication of coffee ($4.50). At Milano Cafe, the tiramisu ($4.99) jumps off the plate with a blast of espresso and cocoa and finishes with a balance of smooth cream and cookie-biscuit density.

'Too much coffee and very little sugar' is how Milano owner Sami Demi describes his housemade tiramisu. That's a good place to finish — and not a bad place to start.

Milano Cafe

At first glance, it's hard to tell this strip-center restaurant is a restaurant at all. It's spartan and contemporary, with big splash-painted canvases dominating the main walls and the kind of low upholstered seating groups more at home in a coffee shop. True to that model, there's a menu of well-executed espresso drinks, free Wi-Fi and ordering is done at the counter. The menu includes cr?pes and breakfast croissants, possibly the vestiges of early morning hours that never quite took hold.

But the Italian accent begins to blossom with the margherita pizza ($7.95). The crust is thick at the edge, thin in the center and crisp with bubbled character all the way through. The personal-sized pie gets a bright acidic bite from thick slices of fresh tomato, an aromatic bump from a generous spread of chopped basil and a solid base of luscious tang from good mozzarella.

Stepping away from the food, I think Milano never got the memo about ordering at the counter. The idea is to drop the food at the table and that's that. Well, forget that. Once we ordered, a table-service aesthetic set in, with attention to water, the clearing of plates, nice conversation and dessert orders. Walk-up convenience, sit-down service.

I have Milano to thank for my new love of Sanbitter, a non-alcoholic, cough syrup-red aperitif from Pellegrino in a tiny glass bottle. The man said that with a cup of coffee, it would make my hair stand on edge in the morning. Done. If your hair requires something with more hold, Milano allows you to bring your own wine or beer.

Digging deeper into the menu, we tried penne pasta bolognese and a big square of lasagne, that great Italian standard and equalizer ($8.99 each). Both came with crisp bread from the panini press and a tiny salad with cucumber, olives, tomato, lettuce and good Italian dressing. Give me this size of a salad with decent ingredients over a big bowl of iceberg and lonely ornamentation any day.

The bolognese here is rich with tomato and meat and coarse sprinkles of Parmesan cheese, but the cheese takes charge over a sauce that strikes a single note and stays there. It's a good single note, but the beauty of bolognese for me is its range. The lasagna, layered with spinach, is thick, rich and cooked well, with fresh herb and tomato flavors, a solid value at $8.99.

Milano's owner is a man of mixed European heritage that includes Calabria in Italy as well as Albania and Croatia. In the kitchen by way of New York, Johnny Brava brings some Brazilian flair to the table. The combination of cultures and cuisine in that coffee shop environment seems like a good fit for Austin.

Verona Ristorante Italiano

The Y in Oak Hill is rough country for restaurants. The convergence of U.S. 290 and Texas 71 is a pass-through point rather than a destination for most. Nunzia's at the Y and Segovia couldn't find a foothold, and Verona itself occupies the former home of Flip's Satellite Cafe.

But like the stock market, past performance is no assurance of future prospects. What matters in Oak Hill is what happens now, and Verona seems ready to be a neighborhood stop for family Italian, if the neighborhood will have it.

It's a cozy space, the walls painted with verdant Italian murals, the bar bristling with wine bottles, the tables set with white tablecloths topped with paper and little flower vases. A twinkle-lit wooden deck out front is as charming as something next to a Big Lots store could hope for.

We ordered Bell'agio chianti, because this seems like the right place for cheap Italian wine in a wicker-bottomed bottle. The waiter was a solid guy of a certain age, and our service felt like what we'd get in my wife's old Italian neighborhood in Detroit: unpretentious, direct, blunt but not unfriendly.

There's no pizza here, and the bruschetta appetizer ($5.50) on grocery store-caliber Italian white bread is a weak starting point, coming across like generic filler with tomato, mozzarella and mushroom. The eggplant parmigiana ($11.95) is better, a couple of well-cooked thick slices with soft breading, tomato and an above-average herbed cream sauce. We had a table debate about how stout any breading should be in a baked dish. If it stays too crisp, it's likely overcooked. Too soft and it will fall apart. In this dish, it's somewhere in between.

Our waiter suggested cannelloni ($12.95) with beef, mushrooms, baby spinach and artichokes. But vegetable lasagne with mushrooms and spinach sounded nice for $10.95. It's layered beautifully, with defined levels of spinach and thick sections of firm cheese, the pasta thick and cooked al dente, the tomato sauce deep red but not overdone.

But Verona takes a downward turn with veal marsala ($15.95) cooked on the tough side and smothered in a wine cream sauce with too much sweetness and not enough mushrooms. Its side dishes of deftly sauteed vegetables and firm spaghetti with red sauce outshine the main attraction.

Bella Sera

Of the three restaurants, this one is the most picturesque. Leather booths line one wall that's painted with a Venetian canal scene. On other walls, the tower of Pisa, the Colosseum. Outside, the patio trickles with the music of two waterfalls. Service is immediate and sincere if not exactly polished. When a cool snap drove us inside, nobody seemed put out by our cartoonish caravan of glasses, dishes and menus.

The menu is a double live album of Italian standards. This is the part where critics usually say 'greatest hits collection,' but there's too much hit-or-miss here for that to work. Linguine putanesca ($9.95), so often the boldest statement on a pasta menu, is a weak red sauce dominated by salt and a caricature of anchovy flavor. A dish of linguine and shrimp Florentine ($15.95) is a queasy orange color, with cream and marinara canceling each other out, although the five or six shrimp hiding under thick robes of undistinguished cheese and overcooked spinach are expertly cooked.

Both are preceded by big salads of iceberg lettuce, shredded cheese, good olives and a single tomato. To dodge the salad upcharge, we ordered a la carte dishes of eggplant parmigiana ($7.95) and a pasta sampler with manicotti, cannelloni and lasagna ($7.95). The eggplant is thin and oily, but there's plenty of it. The sampler, served in one baking dish and carpeted with red sauce and cheese, makes it hard to tell the manicotti from the cannelloni. Both have a generic cheese ravioli character. The lasagna is the one in the middle with overcooked ground meat.

The pizza is a deal-saver, though. From the three sizes, separated by only a few dollars, we ordered an enormous margherita pie for $15.50. The thin crust is a disciplined light brown, crisp all the way to the tip of the slices. Cheese covers the surface, hiding most of the basil, which emerges like hidden treasure among the tomato slices.

Bella Sera has operated in Marble Falls since 2003. Something on that menu must be connecting with the public. With Milano and Verona not that far away, the Bee Cave Bella will be under pressure to find the same connection.

msutter@statesman.com; 912-5902