Transforming a pricey Italian dining spot into a burger-centric grill shows sharpness on the part of the George Martin Restaurant Group. The Merrick spot, an offshoot of the Rockville Centre original, is friendly, bustling, affordable - a magnet for the family crowd.

FIRED UP

I'm keen on the steamed edamame (dubbed "Japanese peanuts"), served with a chile oil and garlic dipping sauce. And it's hard not to fall for the sliders, a trio of mini-burgers that "slide" down easily. What really gets me going is a harmonious chopped salad of greens, walnuts, golden raisins, roasted peppers, corn and fresh mozzarella. Instead of a balsamic dressing (so tired of balsamic), I get chipotle ranch on the side and am highly pleased.

While my Cheddar-topped cheeseburger with shoestring fries is good and fairly juicy, it would be even better if the meat were cooked medium-rare to specifications. But a Cuban-style "mojo" burger - actually a Cuban sandwich of ham, Swiss, mustard sauce and pickles with a burger in the center - is imbued with mucho mojo. So, too, is a juicy provolone cheese steak with crisp onions and steak sauce.

A generous special of pork loin with a mustard-rosemary glaze turns out to be as tender as it is flavorful. I can't help but be surprised at how good the homey but oddball chicken meatballs "Marsala" turns out to be - savory spheres topped with creamy gravy and served with mushrooms and egg noodles. Then, there's the creamy, dreamy mac 'n cheese, which I can't stop eating.

Hooray - desserts are served with freshly whipped cream. There's warm apple strudel with vanilla ice cream and the restaurant's signature brownie sundae, fudgy-rich and topped with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, chocolate sauce and miniature M&M's.

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FIRE THESE

Ginger-vegetable pot stickers are deep fried and way too oily. I'm not sold, either, on the chicken potpie - the filling manages to be both soupy and gluey. A Spartan choice of chicken burger "in a bowl" (an alternative to a bun) actually comes on a plate, a juiceless patty atop an uninspired salad. And the Maryland crab BLT features crab meat that's curiously stringy and dry.

BOTTOM LINE

Even on a weeknight, this stylish place fills up early. Weekends, it's a good bet you'll have to wait a while for a table.

Can you blame people for flocking to a spot where a burger or sandwich can feel like a big-deal dinner?

Reviewed by Joan Reminick, 2/5/09.