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Pasta by the pound

DeNicola's doesn't skimp on the cheese or tomato sauce, either

The menu at DeNicola's Restaurant has barely changed since 1978, though to help Americans keep up our 'fattest nation' status, DeNicola's has increased the size of the manicotti and cannelloni plates Ñ from large to gigantic.

One friendly waitress Ñ who must look younger than she is Ñ says she has been serving dinner at DeNicola's for 20 years. Giovanni DeNicola still comes in every day to check on things, and a portrait and wedding pictures of him and his wife are the first things you see when you walk up to the hostess station.

Map-of-Italy place mats lie atop red-and-white-checkered tablecloths designed for years of sweet Chianti spills. The dining room is lined with private-feeling booths, while the center has round tables for six and long tables that seat up to 20 Ñ often filled with extended Italian-American families.

The menu promises every simple Italian favorite: ravioli, linguine, spaghetti, gnocchi, tortellini, lasagna and pizza. You can order dinners a la carte for $6.25 to $12.95, or with an antipasto plate and minestrone soup or salad for a few bucks more. Every meal is heavy, so come hungry, bring your Lactaid pills, and be prepared to swear yourself to days of the Zone Diet following this dairy and carbohydrate fest.

The DeNicola's kitchen must stockpile massive blocks of mozzarella, vats of tomato sauce and barrels of pasta, because just about every menu item is some variation of these three ingredients. Spaghetti with mushrooms is the only main course that includes a vegetable.

Baked lasagna, which can be so satisfying at mom-and-pop Italian joints, is the most disappointing entree. Starchy, wet lasagna noodles are stacked on top of sausage, then covered with an inch of mozzarella without any noticeable seasoning.

Meat or cheese ravioli, which can be ordered in a tomato sauce, a meat sauce or baked lasagna style with more mozzarella, is better, especially the ricotta-filled ravioli, which tastes fresh and unexpectedly light. The ground-beef filling is mushy and too rich, as if the meat was marinated in half-and-half.

Linguine with clam sauce is cooked al dente, with just the right amount of cream sauce but again devoid of seasonings. Lots of salt and pepper help, but garlic, a splash of white wine and some lemon would be even better.

The restaurant's saving grace is the pizza. The regular crust is thick and doughy, but you can ask for a much crisper thin crust instead. The pizza is so greaseless that the white paper it's served on stays bone dry. Toppings such as spinach, mushrooms and olives are fresh and ample. The strong tastes of anchovies and garlic are especially welcome after the bland pasta dishes.

One expects the smallest pizza, called a duet, and priced from $9.95 to $14.95, to be a personal pizza, but it is actually the size of a Domino's medium. The 'small' pizzas feed three to five hungry people.

In certain neighborhoods of Brooklyn, N.Y., when you order a meatball slice, you get a slice of cheese pizza and a richly marinated meatball on a separate plate. Instead of dried kibbles of baked ground beef, you slice into your own moist, fresh concoction. At DeNicola's you can order a cheese pizza with a side of thick Italian sausage or juicy meatballs for $4 each to create a New York-style meal.

It is impossible to imagine saving room for dessert after a lunch or dinner at DeNicola's, although the restaurant's warmth is conducive to lingering. If you do need a bite of something sweet, generic spumoni is more refreshing than the daunting tiramisu.