Don't be put off by the less-than-enticing interior of this little restaurant tucked away next to the Buckingham Theater.
Only a few months old, this southern Italian restaurant already boasts many repeat customers. It's the simple, homey food they come back for, not the garish green paint above the dark paneling, the spackled cracks that remain unpainted or the sounds of video games that filter through the wall that is shared with a video game parlor.
Attention has clearly been focused on the kitchen, which serves seven days a week, and there are plans to upgrade the decor.
Not all southern Italian cooking produces dense, heavy dishes, and this kitchen is a good example of the light touch -- beginning with the tomato sauce, a simple, pleasant combination of slightly sweetened, juicy plum tomatoes, garlic, and big pinches of Italian herbs.
Eating the savory lasagna was a delightful experience -- far different from the usual sensation of taking on ballast -- because of the fluffy ricotta filling and light tomato meat sauce.
The lasagna with ridged noodles was only one of the homemade pasta choices we enjoyed. For an appetizer, we shared the fettuccine Alfredo -- a tangle of fresh noodles in a mellow cheese sauce. Equally good were the jumbo cheese ravioli -- rounds of al dente pasta stuffed with creamy cheese.
Besides the usual appetizers such as antipasto, and melon and prosciutto, there are excellent, sweet red peppers served cold in their marinade with ample evidence of chopped garlic. The thick strips of pepper, ranging in color from golden orange to red, make a great, colorful start for your meal.
Another good starter is the white pizza served either with fontina cheese or with only olive oil and a generous sprinkling of Italian seasoning. The crust is thin and crackerlike around the edges, chewier toward the middle.
Or try a soothing bowl of the white bean and pasta soup. The thick, golden broth was well-seasoned and studded with whole cloves of garlic.
And more garlic -- this time coarsely chopped -- flavored an absolutely superb broiled flounder. The whole fish was beautifully presented on a large, clear glass platter in the shape of a fish.
The flounder ($11.50) is a frequent item on the list of specials scrawled on a chalkboard near the door. The specials tend to be priced higher than the items on the regular menu, where, with one exception, all entrees are under $10.00.
The osso buco, a well-seasoned, tender veal shank stew with mushrooms and strips of sauteed green pepper is, at $7.50, one of the many bargains on the menu.
We all enjoyed the wonderfully lean, spicy Italian sausages reminiscent of the best of South Philadelphia. We ordered them with sauteed green peppers served alongside a tasty order of eggplant parmigiana.
A few dishes were not totally successful. The fried zucchini was soggy, and the fried calamari were bland although generally tender. Also, the shrimp in the shrimp marinara were overcooked.
For dessert, the cannoli are excellent, as is a large, chocolate-covered, ice cream bonbon called tortufo. A three-layer rum cake was light and not overly sweet.
The Pines of Italy presents a delicious dilemma because there are so few things to avoid and so many to enjoy. The only practical solution, short of gluttony, is a return visit for more of the tempting possibilities.