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Mezzo

So here’s a restaurant with very good food, served in a most pleasant (but not stuffy) atmosphere, and the prices are reasonable. What’s wrong with this picture?

Not much, I’m happy to say. Mezzo is the place, and it comes to us from chef Marcus Ritz, late of Marc’s World Cuisine/Marc’s Italian Steakhouse, which still is in existence but with a different owner.

What’s so special about Mezzo? Well, that’s kind of subtle, really. Here’s a place where you can have a quiet — maybe even romantic — dinner, and still keep an eye on the scores on the muted TV over the bar.

Here’s a place that’s casual enough that the bread is plunked onto the paper-topped table in a rustic touch that feels authentic, but at the same time the service is exceptional.

Here’s a place where the waiter could talk us into a bottle of wine that was more expensive than the one we originally had in mind but instead of feeling upsold, we were grateful.

Mezzo is, in a lot of ways, the neighborhood Italian place so many of us grew up with and still long for, but the quality of food and service and the just-trendy-enough atmosphere make it feel more special than those long-ago spots with red-checked tablecloths and plastic grapes on the walls.

The best of those places lingers in the personal touches; Ritz comes out of the kitchen to talk to each table of customers, explaining the specials, answering questions or, for first-timers, mentioning that he sometimes makes ravioli at a table in view of the dining room.

It also lingers in the kind of old-school sauces we normally associate with little old ladies with rolled-down stockings and wound-up attitudes, such as the “Sunday sauce” served with dishes including eggplant Parmesan ($14). As fans of this dish, we’ve tasted many versions, but “chef Marc’s oldest family recipe” was far better than most, the unbreaded layers of eggplant sort of melting together with the sauce and cheese, the whole a very earthy, appealing dish. Pasta on the side, with more of that sauce, was perfectly al dente.

The chef bragged to us about his gnocchi ($14), but as the cowboy saying goes, it ain’t bragging if it’s true. As promised, the potato-based pasta pillows were featherlight, which only served to point up the contrast between them and the homemade sweet sausage (hot sausage also was available) and the lightened sauce. I was about halfway through this dish when I considered taking home the leftovers, but somehow, I couldn’t resist continuing.

The main reason I contemplated quitting early was that I’d thoroughly enjoyed a salad of roasted beets ($12) — big, beefy beets, with Gorgonzola cheese and candied walnuts and a pile of frisee with a light sherry vinaigrette. The menu had said the beets would be served on baby romaine, but I was glad for the substitution, because the springlike frisee somehow mitigated the autumnal feel of the beets.

And as it turned out, truth-in-advertising was one of the few flaws we encountered at Mezzo. While the frisee-for-romaine substitution was not a major one — and as I said, I actually liked it — the meatballs we ordered for our other appetizer ($8) were, the menu said, to be accompanied by garlic pizza strips, but they weren’t. The meatballs were quite good and cloaked with more of that long-simmered “Sunday sauce,” but after I encountered the problem, I noted that a review some months ago by a sister publication noted the same problem. If you don’t plan to include them, change the menu.

And OK, the bread also was responsible for my sated state. It was truly great bread, stretchy-grained and hard-crusted. To the standard olive oil dip, Mezzo’s servers add a squirt of lemon, which seemed a little offbeat but added a nice bit of acidity that somehow cut the oily feel.

But back to the wine upselling-that-didn’t-feel-like-it: We’d ordered a $35 Valpolicella; our waiter suggested another, which he said was excellent. The $13 difference may be about the price of a glass of wine on the Strip, but on Mezzo’s wine list, it’s a bit of a leap, but since he seemed sincere we leapt. And, yes, the 2005 Corte Giara Ripasso Valpolicella was excellent.

At a time when empty restaurants are, sadly, becoming the norm far more than the exception, we were a little surprised on entering Mezzo late on a weeknight to see a pretty healthy crowd. The $17 osso bucco ($35 elsewhere, even off the Strip) and $3.75 bottled water may well have something to do with that. But they’re just part of the picture, because at Mezzo, a bargain really feels like one.

Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or e-mail her at hrinella@ reviewjournal.com.

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