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THE GRILL NEXT DOOR

Some people don't have the luxury of their own neighborhood joint--a warm, welcoming place that locals call home, with a bartender who knows everybody's usual and all the good O.J. jokes. Then again, some people don't want to encounter their neighbor in a social setting, especially if he's the schmuck who lets his dog eat their newspaper every morning. And then there are the numerous reasons restaurants don't always make good neighbors: parking problems, traffic, noise, drunks poking around in the bougainvilleas at 2 a.m. All of which add up to a good reason to find a swell neighborhood spot in someone else's neighborhood--where everybody won't necessarily know your name, but they'll still be glad you came.

Very glad, judging from the treatment I've received every time I've stepped foot inside the Washington Park Grille. This wood-filled, bare-bricked space is surrounded by sun-catching windows and filled with employees bent on having a good time and sharing the fun with their customers. And those customers run the gamut, with legislators and college students rubbing elbows with hospital employees and actual Wash Park residents. The large bar that separates the pool tables (no charge to play--now that's neighborly) from the dining area is the perfect spot to sidle up to someone new.

If the management doesn't introduce you to each other first, that is. The guy who runs the place, Mark Haber, stopped by to chat with me and a friend as we ate lunch at the bar one day. He had no idea who I was--he just wanted to see if everything was okay and if we needed more bread. Haber is largely responsible for the Wash Park Grille's great feel; he took over what had been Falcone's in 1994, after one of the previous partners won the restaurant in a divorce settlement. The newly single owner wasn't interested in the day-to-day stuff, so she hired Haber--who'd run his own deli, Mark's Milk Bar, on South Pearl for seven years--to come in and do whatever he wanted to make the place fly. Haber's initial chef, Dave Coder, stayed for the first year and created most of the menu. His second and current head chef, Tad Pudansky, came by way of Sfuzzi and the Creekside Grill, both of which were good practice for the type of austere, trattoria-style Italian cooking that's become a specialty here.

It's the sort of easygoing food ideal for a lazy, late lunch. Even the ordering is easy: What you see on the menu is exactly what you get, so if you don't like one of the components listed, don't pick the dish. When I ordered the fettuccine with chicken, pancetta and fresh spinach ($6.95), by golly, what I got was well-cooked, slightly oily fettuccine crisscrossed with grilled chicken strips, diced pancetta (not bacon, mind you) and fresh sauteed spinach. A mild, lingering scent of garlic hit the air when I poked this delicious pile with my fork, but the aroma served as more of an accent than as an actual ingredient. The linguine with grilled eggplant, roasted peppers and kalamata olives tossed with fresh tomato sauce ($6.95) brought another sound combination, this one Mediterranean-Italian. The bite of the olives gave a boost to the fresh tomatoes, and the edge added to the eggplant by grilling balanced the sweetness of the peppers. We rounded out the meal with some crusty bread and a shared field-greens salad ($2.25) tossed with a champagne vinaigrette, currants and almonds. And after a few glasses of red wine, we were feeling very neighborly indeed.

When I returned, I brought a few more friends, because this is the kind of place where you can catch up on old times and laugh out loud without ruining a nearby diner's eating experience. I also brought bigger appetites, so we started with an order of crostini with sun-dried tomato pesto, goat cheese and caponata ($5.95). The appetizer usually serves four, but since there were six at our table, the kitchen had thoughtfully thrown in a few more pieces. But no matter how large the serving, we could never get enough of the superb caponata: chopped eggplant, tomatoes, olives, pine nuts and capers held together with a little olive oil, smashing with the tart goat cheese and the heavy garlic of the pesto. Garlic also figured prominently in the spicy marinara dipping sauce that arrived with the calamari ($6.95), a huge portion of lightly coated, crispy-fried squid.

The mollusk resurfaced on a bed of linguini along with mussels and shrimp ($11.95) that soaked up a spicy tomato sauce, one of the fresh-cooked types this kitchen does well. It also makes an excellent Alfredo, which we tried paired with fettuccine, more shrimp and scallops ($11.95). A smattering of sun-dried tomatoes cut through the richness of the cheese-heavy, butter-light sauce, and while I thought the shrimp was too fishy for the sophisticated Alfredo, the scallops were a smart choice. For our fish-free pasta dish--angel-hair with fresh and sun-dried tomatoes ($8.50)--the price went down but the flavor didn't. This preparation was a good example of what's marvelous about Italian cooking: Fresh ripe tomatoes had been cooked just long enough with the pungent, sun-dried variety that they all melded into one bowl of love-apple goodness.

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