My beet risotto with mascarpone looks disarmingly pink. I take a tentative bite and suddenly find myself in that elusive gustatory realm I call The Zone.

I'm back there once again when I crunch into a baton of watermelon radish and a sliver of sweet grape tomato dabbed with caper aioli. At Kitchen A Trattoria, it's one thrill after another.

Yet, this is a true "Cheap Eats" place: decor minimal, pretensions nonexistent and prices low (nothing exceeds $17). You can bring your own wine.

Executive chef-owner Eric Lomando (who also owns nearby Kitchen A Bistro) and 25-year-old chef de cuisine Eric Bolyard optimize seasonal, carefully sourced ingredients. It's Italian food as it exists in Italy. Which means no mountainous platters of veal Parmesan.

IN AND AROUND THE ZONE

To spread on the warm, crusty peasant bread (from the well-regarded Tom Cat Bakery in Queens), I order a silky eggplant puree and a subtly herbal ricotta spread.

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I have another "omigod" moment when I taste the tender, hauntingly smoky grilled octopus with marinated chickpeas. A combo of chittara pasta, garlic, green chile, roasted tomato and bottarga (dried cured tuna roe) is electric.

And Bolyard's asparagus and Asiago ravioli with fresh and roasted tomatoes come off as little pockets of springtime.

In rich counterpoint is roast quail stuffed with duck and served with a fruity rhubarb agrodolce (sweet and sour compote). In the Heritage pork loin saltimbocca, the juicy and tender meat is pounded with sage and speck (Italian ham), imparting just the right salty edge. Fork-tender brasato (braised short ribs) may be the antidote to a nasty day.

There are layers of flavor in Bolyard's seared sea scallops and clams with fregola (a grain-like pasta) in a citrusy aqua pazza ("crazy water") sparked by orange zest. And in a subtly smoky cedar-planked ocean trout with chickpeas, potato and arugula pesto. A contorno (side dish) of bright green smashed sweet peas with pancetta sings.

For desserts, both the buttery plum and orange crostada and the simple

olive-oil cake with candied oranges are rustic pleasures.

OUTSIDE THE ZONE

Braised pork braciole is a trifle stringy. And a pine nut- and-chocolate tart overemphasizes the assertive pignoli.

 BOTTOM LINE

Amazing food, at any price level.

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