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The entrees, however, fairly screamed with flavor. The lasagna al forno ($10.95)--meaning "lasagna baked in the oven"--was virtually a cheesecake, with ricotta, mozzarella and grana cheeses layered with fennel sausage and just the right amount of marinara to create moisture. Still, the sausage was the main thing we tasted, which turned the dish into some hedonistic childhood fantasy: sausage, cheese and noodles. Who needs anything else? But that was before we tasted Harry's tagliatelle ($8.95), one of many famous dishes created at Harry's Bar in Venice. Although there may have been something in there besides cheese and butter--I did spot flecks of ham--they were buried in the mix of grana and mozzarella cheeses. Even the egg noodles had been covered with mozzarella before they were thrown under the broiler, where they unified until it became a battle to separate each forkful from the rest of the delicious mass. This was one of those dishes that was unbelievable, incredible, exquisite...for about five or six bites. After that, each bite was a love-hate deal: I wanted to keep shoveling this rich stuff into my mouth, but I was going to go into cardiac arrest if I didn't stop.

But I did stop, which is what enabled me to try the tiramisu ($4.50). This commendable but wobbly version hadn't quite set, so it threatened to slip off the plate before we could gobble it all up--which would have been a shame, because we wanted every drop of the not-too-sweet, not-too-rich dessert. The white chocolate cheesecake ($4.50), with its chocolate crust and smooth texture, was another ideal finish, although the slice was so minuscule that we thought the kitchen might be running out and trying to stretch the remainder.

The bill for two was just over fifty bucks--unheard of at the old red-sauce joints, but a bargain in suburban-Italian territory. For that we got two appetizers, a soup and a salad, two entrees and two desserts, plus a bottle of wine. It helped that the wine list is full of inexpensive choices, with three or four hitting the $40 range but most at $15 to $18. The selection's unusual--you're not going to recognize many names--but for the most part the choices are decent, everyday wines that make it easier for your wallet to return to Bruno's.

Our tastebuds had never left.
When we returned one recent Sunday night, only two or three tables were occupied, and only one waiter--a relatively new one at that--was working. But as the tables kept filling up, no additional servers appeared. Somehow, this guy handled it and even managed to make a few friends (although he forgot some details, such as bread and water). It was fun to see the sous chef bringing dishes to the tables, and hostess Donna Dwyer did a couple of juggling acts herself. And I suspect quite a few free desserts and drinks helped inspire everyone's good humor.

Our meal suffered from bad timing--the steamed mussels ($5.95), the bruschetta ($3.95), a bowl of mushroom bisque and the Caesar salad (it was so good, I couldn't resist) all arrived at the same time--but we happily munched our way through. Although the clams promised with the mussels were missing in action, the mollusks were fine, and the bisque had a strong, earthy flavor. The bruschetta, topped with a jumble of diced tomatoes and fresh basil, came on a plate streaked with balsamic; the toasted bread had been sliced as thin as lunch meat, which made it much more appealing--and easier--to eat than the usual too-thick, too-chewy Italian bread.

After we made it through that, we were glad we'd avoided the cheesier entrees. The Tuscan lamb shank ($13.95) was remarkable, the meat almost liquified, with thin ribbons of steamy garlic wafting up from the bone. And the sauce of red wine, kalamatas and tomatoes served as gravy for precisely the kind of chunky, hand-mashed potatoes a dish like this requires. We'd also ordered the linguine alla vongole ($11.95) with white clam sauce (you can choose red, too), which was blander than anything else we'd had at Bruno's (even that first soup) but still serviceable.

On my last visit to Bruno's, I finally got a plate of spaghetti with meatballs ($8.95) in red sauce. Of course, here the red is "pomodoro," which maybe a fifth of the population recognizes as the Italian word for "tomato." But it was a good tomato sauce--thick and rich, with all the right seasonings and a fresh grating of grana--and there was warm-from-the-oven focaccia to sop up any sauce that hadn't already been absorbed by the more-than-generous portion of pasta. A couple of meat-a-balls that were all meat and a glass of Chianti Classico, and I was ready to hail Caesar all over again.

Bruno's Italian Bistro, 2223 South Monaco Parkway, 757-4500. Hours: 5-10 p.m. Monday-Sunday.

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