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When I mentioned Palmira’s to friends each said, "Oh, I know that place. But I’ve never gone in." When I asked why, they all had a variation on "I didn’t know if it was a restaurant, a club or a pizza place."

I had the same problem. The year-old establishment is housed - under heavy scaffolding - at the corner of Clark and Hicks streets in the ground floor of the St. George Tower co-op in Brooklyn Heights. When I glanced through the restaurant’s big glass doors, I’d see a staircase leading to a hostess waiting expectantly at the top of the steps. The windows of the restaurant are set well above ground level, making it difficult to peek in for a clue about its ambience.

Each window framed a diner or a couple drinking wine from large goblets. My impression of the place was stuffy and formal, somewhere I’d consider taking my out-of-town in-laws but wouldn’t enjoy myself. A photo of the restaurant on Citysearch.com made the interior look like a wedding hall.

So many misconceptions.

Palmira’s is a fine Italian restaurant where you can hear first-rate jazz on weekend evenings and during Sunday brunch. There are three dining rooms; none have the chilly formality of a wedding hall. Each room is elegant with beautifully appointed tables, khaki-colored walls, burgundy leather booths and chairs, and subtle, golden lighting.

Stuffy it is not.

The mood is casual with couples or single diners at some tables and friends and family groups chatting and sharing dishes around the others. When Bill Young (a Brooklyn Heights resident who appears regularly) and his band perform, the mood is playful, almost giddy.

Victoria and Roger Desmond, who own Palmira’s (the restaurant is named for Roger’s grandmother), brought chef Alexandro Medina, from Rome. His cooking reflects both the sophisticated cuisine and the rustic fare of that city.

On the more urbane side of the menu are two simple, light appetizers - the beef carpaccio and the fresh beet and asparagus salad. Paper-thin slices of raw filet mignon were fanned around a plate like a flower. Leaves of peppery arugula, pungent shards of Parmigiano Reggiano and a drizzle of truffle-scented olive oil added bite and woodsy aroma to the mild meat.

The salad made the most of this season’s green market riches. After the long winter, I forgot how delicate and nutty asparagus are. They’re lovely in this plate of greens paired with the earthy beets, the mix of tender lettuces in lemony vinaigrette and the creamy Gorgonzola.

Fettuccini bolognese was a letdown. The fresh pasta was supple and al dente, but the dish was awash in dull beef and veal sauce.

On Sunday, a ragu is served that will remind Italians of their weekend afternoon family meal. In a hearty tomato sauce meatballs, braciola (usually a pork chop), ribs and sausage simmer for hours. The sauce becomes rich and spicy with the meats’ seasoning, and then it’s served over pasta. It’s a delicious, albeit heavy, dish meant to be shared.

Medina has a subtle hand with fish, coaxing its flavor with a splash of delicate wine, a few fresh herbs and a scattering of lightly poached vegetables. In the center of the plate sat a large filet of poached salmon served very rare, the way I like it. A few spears of asparagus and a couple of sweet tomatoes added up to a delightful summer entree.

The pizzas are individually sized and they’re on the expensive side, $12-$15 without extra toppings. However, they’re surprisingly filling - two or three slices with a glass of wine make an ideal dinner. The crust is thin and crisp and the toppings are fresh and carefully prepared. The white pizza with grilled zucchini and eggplant, mozzarella and dollops of house-made ricotta cheese was almost as good as the prosciutto, arugula, tomato and mushroom pie. Neither pie was as wonderful as something that emerges from a wood-burning oven, but they were good.

Two more reasons to give Palmira’s a go are their nightly, $20, three-course prix fixe dinner served from 5 pm to 7 pm. Having scored that bargain you can spring for one of the 70 bottles of international wines, many in the mid-$20 to high-$40 price range; 22 wines are offered by the glass and are half-price when ordered with the prix fixe meal.

Their dessert list will please traditionalists. There are several sorbets and gelatos, a couple of cheesecakes and tiramisu. A tart with almond filling covered with a snowdrift of powdered sugar was sweet enough to make me wince. Tartufo, a round ball of ice cream filled with cherries or cake, sometimes coated with chocolate or nuts, enjoyed a short-lived comeback as the "it" dessert a couple of summers ago. On Palmira’s dessert list, this retro special is available three ways: chocolate, cappuccino or limoncello. The limoncello "truffle" of creamy lemon ice cream is filled with lemon syrup that becomes gel like as it firms. It’s a refreshing dessert but one that you’ll forget 10 minutes after you eat it.

More compelling are the dessert pizzas - one has fresh pears and chocolate sauce and the other has fig preserves and Gorgonzola - that make stylish partners to a glass of dessert wine or a strong cup of coffee.

Perhaps the best way to enjoy Palmira’s is on a weekend evening. You can settle into a comfortable booth, order one of the pizzas and a glass of wine and linger over the food and music. You’ll be glad you walked through the door.

 

Palmira’s Brooklyn Heights (41 Clark St. at the corner of Hicks Street) accepts Visa, MasterCard and American Express. Entrees: $12-$28. A $20 prix fixe is offered daily from 5 pm to 7 pm. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner seven days a week. A Sunday jazz brunch is available from 11 am to 4 pm. For reservations call (718) 237-4100.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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