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There are some restaurants that rise to the level of neighborhood institution. Bay Ridge’s Vesuvio is one of them.

The once simple pizza parlor has remained in the same spot on Third Avenue since 1953, and has changed ownership just once: in 1978 when Nino Viscuso bought the place.

Nino is still the owner; you can spot him behind the counter filling boxes with hot-from-the-oven pies in Vesuvio’s pizza area. (Vesuvio is named for Mount Vesuvius, the only active volcano in Italy.) His son Antonio manages the dining rooms.

While pizza is an important part of the menu, the original neighborhood eatery has undergone a serious makeover.

In 2004, Viscuso expanded the restaurant into the next-door storefront, creating plenty of space for a large, comfortable yet sophisticated dining room. Walk from the pizza area into the dining rooms, and you’re met with an elegant yet informal setting.

The walls of both dining areas are paneled in warm tones. Marble-like tables sport jute-woven place mats in earthy neutral tones, and huge glass jars of ruby red peppers create an inviting display atop wood shelving.

Like the setting, the menu is a hybrid of sorts, straddling typical pizza parlor fare and more than the usual red sauce dishes. For casual dining, the pizzas are thin-crusted and simply topped, and there are plenty of hero sandwiches "alla parmigiana" to sate that particular craving. The pastas include crowd-pleasing basics like baked ziti, stuffed shells and linguini with meatballs. Alongside those favorites are delicate veal entrees, carefully prepared seafood and poultry dishes.

After warm pieces of rustic Italian bread served with butter, and squares of house-made bruschetta topped with ripe tomatoes redolent of garlic, came little stacks of grilled portobello mushrooms topped with a velvety grilled red pepper and thick slices of mozzarella cheese. The appetizer was tasty, if not exciting, but it couldn’t hold a candle to our serving of calamari.

All evening, platters of golden-brown fried calamari, one of the house specialties, were carried to other tables. The kitchen serves it two ways: "fritti" with a side of marinara sauce, and "arrabbiata" topped with a light tomato sauce and slices of sauteed cherry peppers. We tried the "arrabbiata," Italian for "angry," and it was a delight. The coating on the big pieces of squid was crackling crisp; some of the slices began to soften in the deeply flavored sauce, making each mouthful a mix of crunchy topping and pleasantly moistened batter. The peppers added jolts of spiciness. It took willpower not to polish off the entire platter.

A serving of linguini in white clam sauce was just as delicious. A large bowl of perfectly al dente pasta was ringed with tiny clams in the shell; a mound of the sweet, chopped mollusks took center stage. The clam broth was clean tasting and briny. Soft, nutty, whole cloves of garlic gave the dish sweetness, and plenty of chopped fresh parsley lent its fresh, delicate fragrance.

The "melanzana," better known as eggplant, featured thin slices of the lightly battered vegetable layered with mozzarella and topped with a fresh-tasting tomato sauce. The dish was a little heavy on the cheese but still enjoyable.

The only thing that marred tender scallops of veal was an overly thick, brightly lemon-laced white wine sauce. The sauce on the chicken "Scarpariello" was also thick, but so winy, with such a mellow garlic flavor, that my comment is more of an observation than a criticism. Who could complain with such moist pieces of chicken breast and that sauce so fragrant with piney notes of fresh rosemary?

The dessert roundup offers the same tried-and-true favorites that you’ll find in most Italian restaurants and, increasingly, bistros of all persuasions: tiramisu, cheesecake, gelato and tartufo. There’s even the ubiquitous molten-centered, warm chocolate cake - deliciously appropriate for an eatery named after a volcano - served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It will make chocolate lovers happy. The espresso is strong, without being bitter, as is the rich coffee.

One thing that Vesuvio has that you won’t find anywhere else is Antonio. He is a gracious host without appearing formal; he’s attentive yet not too familiar, and he resembles my favorite character on the HBO series "Six Feet Under," the handsome Federico. His presence and the simple Neapolitan dishes: That’s a winning combination.


Vesuvio (7305 Third Ave. at 73rd Street in Bay Ridge) accepts American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $6.50-$21. The restaurant is open daily for lunch and dinner. For more information call (718) 745-0222.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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