MAYS LANDING - Cousin Mario's is conveniently located on a main thoroughfare here with plenty of exposure and parking, so you will probably never have a problem finding a space.

The brightly lit main dining room seemed to be closing when we arrived, so the hostess seated us in the bar area without an explanation as to why the dining room was not available. It wasn't our preference to dine near TVs blaring "American Idol" but, after a while, we settled into the groove and became quite comfortable. To the right of where we were, up a short flight of stairs, there is an attractively decorated living-room area that houses several tables for seating, a much more appealing spot to be.

Our waitress was very perky and quick to greet us, but she left us sitting far too long before she took our order. Apparently, she was more interested in chatting with other customers than coming back in a timely manner. Once she returned, the service was fine, although she delivered our soup and salad before the appetizers. Her intentions were in the right place. She didn't want us to wait for the appetizers, but I like to have them first. I don't mind if it takes a little extra time.

On the menu, you'll find popular Italian-American fare so reasonably priced that you won't think twice about taking a large group. Most entrees are less than $20 and come with soup or salad, plus the portions are bountiful.

Our dinner began with nice, warm pizza-dough knots and olive oil infused with so much minced garlic I could barely eat it. A garlic lover's dream, but not mine.

The fried-calamari appetizer ($6.95) looked appealing, but came up short. I am fairly certain we were served a frozen product, which wouldn't have been a problem had it not been oily and bland. A smattering of bruschetta topping made with tomatoes, onions, basil and garlic didn't add nearly enough verve. Where was the saucer of marinara we're accustomed to getting? I appreciate the effort to be unique, but this was a case where conventional would have been welcomed.

Two miniature, pan-seared crabcakes ($7.95), with remoulade and a grilled lemon half, were dense with crabmeat. In spite of oodles of filler, their flavor was everything you'd expect, but the yellow-corn kernels in the salsa that accompanied them were chewy. Maybe this type of salsa should be a seasonal garnish reserved for the summer, when farm-fresh corn is abundant. The grilled lemon was a great touch - easy to squeeze.

I enjoyed the house salad made with mixed greens, assorted vegetables and croutons, all tossed with a light, creamy Italian vinaigrette, but the cream-of-broccoli soup was overly thick and salty.

My guest ordered homemade lasagna ($12.95) made from Cousin Mario's 35-year family recipe. Who can resist a temptation like that? Layers of pasta came embedded in a ricotta-cheese mixture with just the right amount of ground beef topped with a bubbling, delicious tomato sauce and melted mozzarella. This traditional recipe was indeed worthy of praise.

On the other hand, my chicken francaise ($12.95) with lemon-butter-wine sauce and linguini had the ingredients of a wonderful dish, but it faltered a bit in some areas. Several large, thinly pounded chicken breasts were wrapped in egg batter so plump it was like eating an omelette. The chicken itself was perfectly tender, but we almost couldn't find it. Broccoli and cauliflower florets were also cooked to perfection, but overloaded with butter and garlic.

For dessert, a wedge of apple pie a la mode ($4.95) had an extremely sweet, cornstarchy filling that didn't come close to homemade. A simple chocolate layer cake ($3.95) with chocolate frosting was much better.

For the most part, the food at Cousin Mario's is freshly made, using top-quality products (frozen and otherwise). My biggest complaint is the heavy hand with garlic, which should be used to enhance a dish, not overpower it.

We had no issues with the casual, friendly service after we finally got started, even though sitting in the bar area didn't give us the full dining experience. Our waitress couldn't have been more accommodating.

With high ceilings and wood galore, the atmosphere reminded us of a mountain lodge where you might stop for a cocktail, a bite to eat and watch a game.

One of the things I liked best is that you can bring your family for supper and not spend a fortune.

Cousin Mario's is one of the few places that regularly offers live music. That alone is a reason to go there.

(Taylor Yarborough is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Yarborough c/o Food Editor James Clark at jclark@pressofac.com. Restaurant-ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.)

Cousin Mario's

5401 Harding Highway

Mays Landing

Phone: 609-837-2698

Rating:

Hours: Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday & Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.,

Sunday 1 to 9 p.m.

Liquor license: Yes

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Appetizers $4.95 to $8.95, entrees $9.95 to $22.95

Our bill for two: $49.70 plus tip