Second Helpings: Nuovo Italiano

The weekly Chronicle feature "Second Helpings" offers readers the opportunity to sample tasty, bite-sized restaurant listings compiled from new and previous reviews, guides, and poll results. This week's entries were compiled by Chronicle Cuisines writer MM Pack. When you need quick, reliable information about Austin eateries, check here.

Italian Garden

14611 Burnet, 388-1062 Tues-Fri, 11am-2pm, 5-10pm; Sat, 5-10pm

The devil may be in the details, but so is the divine. And it's attention to the little things that help make tiny Italian Garden a sweet surprise in a far-north strip center, from the bowl of croutons on every table to the delicate herbal house dressing to the soft, yeasty homestyle bread. Specializing in hearty southern-Italian "Brooklyn-style" fare, this friendly family establishment serves up loving attention in every dish. Reasonably priced dinners come in four courses; you get essential chicken minestrone, an appetizer pizza, and pasta, along with your choice from a variety of entrées. The melt-in-your-bocca veal parmigiana is exceptional.

Cafe Mia

3573 Far West, 342-9570

Mon-Fri, 6:30am-9pm; Sat-Sun, 8am-4pm

There's a new kid on the block in the Old Quarry shopping center, and he's offering a wide variety of good grub to take out or eat in. Adrian Creasey's Cafe Mia has a breakfast taco bar, an all-you-can-eat brunch bar, salads and focaccia sandwiches for lunch, a variety of hot dinner entrées served with two sides, and lots of sweets, from gelato to brownies. The dinner menu is mostly Italian, including Tuscan pot roast, lasagna, and ravioli, with significant American comfort-food influence in the chicken pot pie, giant crab cakes, and meat loaf in tomato sauce. And for those special takeout situations, the fresh fruit and flower selections are a nice touch.

La Traviata

314 Congress, 479-8131

Mon-Thu, 11am-2pm, 5-9:30pm (bar open later); Fri, 11am-2pm, 5-10:30pm; Sat, 5-10:30pm

This bright new downtown restaurant with the operatic name is already popular at lunch and dinner, serving straightforward Italian food composed of fresh and seasonal ingredients. The dishes on the menu are characterized by light sauces, fresh vegetables, and judicious use of fresh herbs and aromatics, perfectly suited to Austin's summer weather. The generously portioned chicken parmesan is succulent and subtle, and the deceptively simple spaghettini bolognese is a charming combination of ground veal, beef, and pork with mixed wild mushrooms. It takes talent to make a classic Caesar salad seem special; this sherry vinegar-based version is a real winner.

Bellagio Italian Bistro

6507 Jester Blvd., 346-8228

Mon-Thu, 5:30-10:30pm; Fri-Sat, 5:30-11:30pm

Bellagio's wild popularity means that, unless you wish to dine at nine, you should prepare yourself for a wait, even with a reservation. Use your time to work up an appetite; this upscale place doles out absolutely enormous portions of well-prepared trattoria fare. The thick, succulent pork chop comes with creamy spinach and pine nuts, vegetables, and wedges of deep-fried polenta. The Sicilian seafood combination, enough for you and your best friend, is a platter of tagliatelle, covered in quantities of steamed mussels and clams, scallops and shrimp, sauced in a mildly spicy tomato broth and smothered with crisply tender, fried calamari. (In case you're wondering, you can eat the orchids that garnish almost every dish.)

Siena Ristorante Toscana

6203 Capital of Texas Hwy., 349-7667

Mon-Thu, 11:30am-2pm, 5:30-10pm

Fri, 11:30am-2pm, 5:30-11pm; Sat, 5:30-11pm

While Highway 360 near 2222 is not exactly in the country anymore, dining in Siena's imposing Tuscan-style stone manor house might beguile you into thinking that it is. The ambitious northern Italian-style menu includes salmon and veal dishes, pastas, and seasonal soups. On the lighter side, the creamy risotto perfumed with truffle oil and topped with summer vegetables is a real treat, as is the delicately sauced pappardelle with wild mushrooms. Choose from a variety of substantial salads, including an asparagus salad and a refreshing mixed shellfish salad.

Piccolo Italian Cafe

2828 Rio Grande, 476-5600

Mon-Thu, 11am-10pm; Fri-Sat, 11am-11pm

The funky industrial exterior of Piccolo gives no clue to the tastefully sedate and romantic ambience inside. Definitely the best spot for a food date within walking distance of UT, Piccolo offers a pleasing variety of housemade pastas and wood-fired pizzas, hot and cold appetizers, and nicely prepared chicken, seafood, and veal entrées. Choose from the selection of moderately priced Italian wines and end your meal with the richly flavorful but delicate tiramisu.

Al Capone's Ristorante Italiano

312 Barton Springs Road, 481-1182

Mon-Fri, 11am-2pm, 5-10pm; Sat, noon-11pm; Sun, 4:30-10pm

Newly revamped, the yield-sign yellow building at Barton Springs and Riverside now houses a coolly darkened, white-tablecloth restaurant where Al himself might feel right at home. Serving a very wide selection of fundamental pasta dishes, sauced or baked, along with other traditional Italian-American fare, this reasonably priced eatery offers an inexpensive new lunch buffet of pasta, salad, soup, and fruit.

Asti Trattoria

408 East 43rd St., 451-1218

Mon-Fri, 11am-11pm; Sat, 5-11pm

In their brand-new Hyde Park venture, those talented Foxes, Emmett and Lisa, have achieved that rarest of combinations in Austin restaurant fare -- food that is simultaneously sophisticated and unpretentious, skillfully prepared and artfully presented. The menu includes dishes styled from various Italian regional cuisines -- Tuscan to Calabrian to Sicilian -- and the extensive wine list offers an interesting range of mostly Italian and Cal-Ital selections. The bowl of perfectly cooked soft polenta topped by grilled eggplant, portobello, fresh tomato sauce, and a dollop of herby goat cheese was the most satisfying lunch I've had in a long time.

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