The initial attraction for first timers at The Mex-Italia Rose is the exuberance of coowner-hostess Soroya Freda. The way she greets you on arrival, you'd think you were a long lost relative, or at least a pretty good friend. Few hostesses work a crowd of diners as ably as she. By dinner's end you're likely to know more about the people who run this restaurant than the folks you work with throughout the week.

The second surprise is that such a fine little eatery exists in the modest Brookfield Plaza. The Mex-Italia Rose, with its airy, high ceilinged dining room, festive red and green tablecloths, and attractive shiny brass colored chairs, is unassumingly charming.

And lastly, there's the food -- a blend of Mexican and Italian specialties prepared by the hostess' husband-chef, Ralph. Here's a restaurant that does many things well and rarely disappoints. Sauces can be superb, fiery and complex or subtly tantalizing. Homemade dough is used for the strombolis, pizzas and calzones. The meat for the sausages is freshly ground. Soups are prepared from scratch. Even the chips that precede a meal are the stuff over which snack food manufacturers would fight for the rights to, so extraordinarily crisp, crunchy, and full of corn flavor are these.

This is a place you want to keep at the top of your dining out list.

Admittedly, my first visit failed to scratch the surface of the kitchen's talent as far as the main dishes were concerned. The experience had been great fun -- our motherly waitress was especially amusing and helpful -- but the fettuccini primavera had proven rather lackluster and an entree of delicately breaded "veal francesco," though quite decent and well seasoned, was in fact turkey beneath a melt of mozzarella and spinach. (The menu promised we wouldn't be able to distinguish the taste difference, but such wasn't the case.)

What made me reconsider this restaurant was that it performed admirably in every other detail. Rarely has a salad bar commanded so much attention: there were standard selections to be sure, but they kept company with several fine salads, including a macaroni salad -- packed with fresh vegetables, cheese and genoa salami and bound with the lightest of dressings -- and a wonderful, sesame redolent rice salad with lots of bite. The buffet itself was graced by generous baskets of those wonderful homemade chips and crunchy garlic toast rounds, served tableside with a piquant, blood red Mexican sauce and a chunky, zesty Italian salsa, heady with accents of fresh basil and oregano. To drink there were both red and white sangria, plus sensational strawberry margaritas that tasted of fresh fruit puree. And the pizzas issued from the kitchen atop silver stands looked wonderful -- and smelled heavenly.

We discovered Mex-Italia's more creative main dishes on a second visit, when we ordered the enchilada louisa -- two flavorful enchiladas stuffed with smooth, earthy black beans and blanketed with a teasingly spicy combination of chilies, cheeses and tomatoes -- and succumbed to the aroma of a calzone and a pizza.

To adorn those crusty, chewy, yeasty flavored pizzas are goat cheese and Mexican and Italian sausages, along with the usual toppings of mushrooms, peppers, onions and anchovies. The white pizza was simple and elegant, with a whisper of pesto sandwiched between the crust and a bubbling golden surface of cheese. Equally tempting was the calzone, a yeasty pocket baked golden brown, adequately stuffed with gooey cheese and flavorful diced ham. A small pot of rich tomato sauce accompanied this hearty main course.

Rounding out the menu are a number of Mexican pork, chicken, and beef dishes, plus an array of pasta entrees, such as ravioli, spaghetti, lasagna (a fine, meaty rendition, layered with chorizo on our visit), baked cheese tacos and the like.

Dessert is somewhat difficult to contemplate after such a filling meal, although you might not want to forgo the homemade cheesecake, a two-layered confection consisting of cream cheese on the top, and a fudge-like chocolate base.

The melding of two familiar cuisines into a single fine repertoire is demonstrated at The Mex-Italia Rose, a spunky, ambitious eatery with much to admire. As far as dining bargains go, this restaurant qualifies as a most delicious one.