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Columbia Spectator Staff

By Kristen Savarese

Columbia Summer Spectator

Ah, la Cucina di Pesce. Just thinking about it makes me swoon. This romantic corner restaurant is perfect for couples looking, not for a roaring fireplace and mind-numbing silence, but for a subtly hip date spot that can back up its ambiance with some incredible, inexpensive Italian dishes--a rarity in the wilds of East Village experimental cuisine. Cucina di Pesce is partially submerged underneath the legendary KGB Bar on the corner of E. 4th St. and Second Ave. The light filtered in from the small windows above the dining room gives it a cavernous, Blue-Grotto feel, exacerbated by the cherubic statues and Pottery Barn candles set on the ledges of the restaurant's stone walls.

The night I visited with my family was mild enough to eat at one of the outdoor tables, but I was more attracted by the shadowy interior and active bar. We were seated in the inner dining room, far removed from the bar, the smoking section, and the chaos of the host stand. Immediately after being seated, water glasses, a basket of perfectly toasted garlic bread, and a complimentary antipasta of marinated potatoes, string beans, carrots, and onions were presented to tide us over as we perused the menu.

Aside from the large assortment of pesce, the restaurant also offers salads, pastas, and meat dishes. Cucina's most expensive item, Tuna Steak ($10.95) was grilled and served over sautéed tri-color sweet peppers, black olives, capers and onions. The generous piece was lean and juicy, perfectly matching the flavors of the fresh peppers and mild seasonings. The Chicken Portobello ($9.95) offered two slabs of grilled chicken with a chunky portobello mushroom sandwiched between, all sautéed with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. When I had run out of mushroom to eat with the chicken, I drenched the rest of the meat in its tangy vinaigrette. If the Linguine with Wild Mushrooms ($7.96) was indicative of the pasta dishes, Cucina's homemade pasta is the al dente ideal. The long linguine were bathed in a marsala wine cream sauce that left no oily traces at the bottom of the deep bowl.

Luckily, we were seated next to a giddy party of 22 who filled half the dining room and ordered nearly everything on the menu, so it was easy to check out the restaurant's other offerings. The Black Linguine ($9.95) with shrimp and asparagus in a pink sauce looked particularly appetizing, good enough to make me temporarily forget that the wheat free strands are black for a fishy reason.

The Fried Calamari ($5.95) seemed to be a house favorite, and the Grilled Chicken Ceasar Salad ($7.95) was large enough to constitute a meal, although I would not recommend passing up an entree. All the dishes were served on large white plates with colorful borders that perfectly framed each main course.

Thanks to the party of 22, I was able to witness the servers at their best, dashing through the restaurant with steaming hot dishes, refilling glasses, clearing plates, and not once forgetting my small party of three who sat hidden in the corner.

Cucina di Pesce does not leave you with the willpower to refuse dessert, especially after the waiters present all its post-dinner offerings at your table. We chose to share the Tiramisu ($5.00), which sounds rather nutritionally noble, but the Italian mousse was served in such a large goblet that the three of us weight-watchers still each got more than a dietician's recommended serving. Other sugar highs that would bring me back were the Cappuccino Cheese Cake ($4.50) and the Pecan Pie ($4.50).

As if the prices were not reasonable enough, Cucina di Pesce also offers an early bird special, weekdays between 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., and weekends from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., which includes a three-course meal, coffee, tea, or a glass of wine, for only $9.95.

Next time you want a cozy, shadowy date place, or would like to treat a dozen of your friends, Cucina di Pesce is the Italian mecca for you.

Cucine di Pesce is located at 87 E. 4th St. Call 260-6800.