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Love, Italian Style

L'Amante

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Kevin and Kathi Cleary opened L'Amante just three months ago in the former site of Hu Nan Chinese restaurant on Burlington's College Street, and already their trattoria feels like a beloved neighborhood haunt. The Clearys seem to be giving local foodies what they want: a sophisticated but unstilted setting, a serious Italian menu -- not overburdened with too many choices -- an excellent wine list, reasonable prices and knowledgeable, attentive servers.

L'Amante's unpretentiousness is appealing. The entrance opens to a bistro area with a long bar and several small tables. The latter line a wall that serves as a sensible buffer for the main dining area. The restaurant has low, tasteful lighting and a spare, rather indecisive decor -- white tablecloth dining for about 100 in a setting of pale green and beige. The space has chic potential, but trendiness takes a back seat to the ambitious turnout from the kitchen.

Open for dinner only, the restaurant peaks around 8 p.m. midweek, yet the diners linger, as if taking a cue from Europe's unrushed culinary culture. The night my companion and I arrived, the room was filled, but not crowded, with couples and just-friends, locals and visitors. Dressed up or dressed down, all of them were talkers; contented conversation buzzed throughout the evening.

Laura, our server, led us to a desirable table in the far corner of the dining room, with seating on a comfortable banquette and a view of the entire room. She immediately asked if we'd prefer tap or bottled water, still or sparkling. We chose bottled, then got to the task of selecting a pre-dinner drink. Laura delivered our orders in no time at all: a L'Amante cosmopolitan in a generous martini glass ($6.50), and a less exotic-looking gimlet served in a highball glass ($6.50). Some crusty bread -- at room temperature but made from scratch -- magically appeared on the table along with two complimentary house toppings: a tasty chicken-liver pâte and slightly over-garlicky hummus.

The service was faultlessly paced -- leisurely but not too slow. I began with the night's appetizer special, two lightly crusted crab cakes served with a dollop of rich aioli sauce and a side of Euro greens ($9). The cakes were a bit too moist but the overall flavor was excellent. My partner downed about 20 tender steamed mussels ($9), and sopped up the remaining broth of white wine, garlic and thyme with his bread.

Agreeing on an appropriate wine for the main course was a bit of a challenge -- the wine list is overwhelming, ranging from $6.50 a glass to $160 for a bottle of 1996 Aldo Conterno Bussia Soprana. Laura was spot-on in suggesting a lovely bottle of crisp white Falchini Vernaccia di San Gimignano ($26) from Tuscany.

With precision timing, our main dishes arrived, fragrant and hot. Some of the more substantial starters can be ordered in larger portions, such as ravioli (starter, $9; main course, $17). We felt we'd be remiss in not testing the chef's pasta, and the ravioli proved a good call. Fresh ricotta and basil with roasted eggplant and parmigiana filling was neatly wrapped in delectably thin, handmade pasta pockets.

The succulent roasted chicken ($18) was prepared to perfection, served in a pool of rosemary jus and paired with a delicious square of custard-like herbed polenta and haricots verts (baby string beans). My companion, a swordfish aficionado, jumped at the opportunity to be the judge on L'Amante's grilled swordfish with lemon risotto cake ($19). Verdict? The best he's ever had! Other dinner choices included stuffed loin of pork with mashed potatoes ($19), sea bass on sauteed greens ($20), roasted duck ($20) and grilled New York strip steak ($21).

From several dessert options, we selected ice cream with strawberries in a -- get this -- sweetened balsamic vinegar sauce ($6). The unusual combination nearly worked and we'd give it another go, but the balsamic was a little too present when it should have been subtle. Delectable dessert standards include apple crostata with vanilla ice cream and apple-cider glaze ($6); dreamy creme brulee and chocolate mousse with mascarpone cream ($6 each), and biscotti. We asked to sample the biscotti, listed as a stand-alone dessert; our server happily delivered two biscotti bites gratis along with our ice cream. Unfortunately, the imported nuggets had a "processed" taste no better than a Nabisco wafer. Proper baked-twice Italian biscotti are big in the texture and crunch department, and that wasn't happening here. These are about the only items from an outside vendor, and I'd bet Chef Cleary could have done a better job baking them in his own kitchen.

L'Amante gets a B in the presentation department -- like the restaurant decor, the dishes are turned out with little flourish. They're not unappealing by any means, but given the quality elsewhere, I expected more artistry. The saving grace is what's actually on the plate. Cleary obviously knows his way around an Italian kitchen, and no wonder. He studied his craft in Italy prior to entering the American restaurant business -- for several years he honed his skills at two top-rated Boston restaurants, Pignoli and Il Capriccio. Then he and wife Kathi opened the predecessor to this L'Amante, a highly regarded small restaurant by the same name in the Boston 'burb of Gloucester. It is our good fortune that the couple wanted to move to Vermont.

The standards of Burlington's fine-dining scene seem to be enhanced with nearly each entry in recent years. Though there's a bit of room for improvement, L'Amante is a standout addition. As its romantic name suggests, local fans of upscale Italian food are likely to fall in love with this place.

Note: L'Amante will be closed September 12-21 while the owners visit Italy on wine and food business.

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