NORTHFIELD - From the outside, Luke Palladino's restaurant in the Plaza 9 Shopping Center bears little resemblance to an Italian trattoria along a cobble-stoned alley in a Tuscan village. But once you walk through the curtain into the tiny dining room, you will in fact, be transported to a place where good service, food and conversation are the greatest gifts of all.

Slices of bread arrived with a ramekin full of amazing-tasting olive oil and a spoon. There are dippers and drizzlers; we had one of each at our table. And that simple start got us talking about the courses to come.

Warm Tuscan chopped liver ($10) is a new option on a menu that changes slightly with the seasons. Garlicky and salty from the capers but slightly sweet, it was served in a ceramic crock and paired with a salad of pickled fennel and onion as a palate cleanser. Smearing it on perfect little grilled bruschetta gave it just enough crunch to balance it out. And the busy work, assembling the crostini, made eating it more fun.

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Another new offering was the roasted sausage and grapes ($12) served over a goat cheese polenta with rosemary, sage and balsamic. Rustic and filling, it was hearty but light enough we finished the plate.

We also sampled the warm burrata-mozzarella ($13) melted down like an Italian version of fondue, with shards of roasted raddichio wrapped in smoky, crisp speck ham and slices of those sweet, squat onions called cipollini. The raddichio and onion mixture was balanced on a long, crisp crostini on the top of the black cauldron of cheese; our server directed us to break it in two, allowing all the ingredients to fall into the cheese mixture below.

What we liked best about the butternut squash tortelli ($18) was how thin the dough was. The sage and brown butter sauce was seasoned with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, and we also detected a slight sweetness.

The Sicilian mixed grill ($29) was a kind of fritto misto dusted with seasoned oregano crumbs that added a slight crust without hiding the flavor of the seafood. Shrimp, scallops, and but the roasted vegetables on the side seemed too dark in parts.

Splitting a dessert seemed the only way we could fit any more food. We had little trouble finishing the Affogato ($9) made with vanilla gelato, limoncello, crushed Amaretti cookies, and whipped cream. Our server tipped a demi-tasse of hot espresso over it all.

The staff, dressed in black, actually seem to enjoy reciting specials or explaining the finer points of the menu. They also tend to any wine you may have brought for dinner, in our case asking if we would like it chilled and providing an ice bucket.

The dining room is simply decorated in mostly black and gray matted tones, with just a few details - like a wall decorated with unglazed porcelain platters, or a row of photographs lit museum-style from above. A row of black painted wooden benches line two walls, with pillows stored just behind.

The tables at Luke Palladino's are close enough together that you can see what your neighbor is eating before you make a decision. Don't be surprised if someone comments on your food or offers you one of their truffled grissini - those breadsticks brushed with white truffle butter, grated cheese, and wrapped with paper thin slices of prosciutto - it's that kind of crowd. Expect to see some serious bottles of wine at these tables.

Although a tall curtain runs down the center of the room to separate the dining area from the kitchen, we have never seen it used. Instead, you can watch what is going on in the kitchen from various spots in the dining room.

Center stage is a heavy butcher block table stocked with an assortment of cured meats and cheeses that are on the menu, along with items like extra-virgin olive oil for sale.

The room was decorated for Christmas in reserved European tradition - not with flashing lights and singing Santas, but with small details like decorative balls stacked in an apothecary jar on the shelf, or a bunch of pine branches embellishing the mirror. The music was supplied by a host of Italian pop stars, Zucchero, one of the most famous.

So, what makes a restaurant with little in the way of whistles and bells a four star find? It's the food stupid. Along with the ambiance, and the decor, and the atmosphere. And the way the staff at Luke Palladino - Seasonal Italian Cooking, make it all look so simple.

Luke Palladino

1333 New Road, Northfield

Phone: 609-646-8189

Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays;

5 to 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.


Liquor license: BYO

Credit cards: most major

Disabled access: Yes

Price range: appetizers $6 to $18; entrees $18 to $32

Our bill for two: $95 plus tip

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