Culinary comfort, high spirits and low prices are the triple lures of Mercato Kitchen & Cocktails, the kind of spot everyone seems to crave these days. Hidden away in the corner of a shopping center, it's sleek and modern, crowded and clamorous.

KITCHEN CHARISMA

First thing I order is a peach Bellini, peach puree and Prosecco, a cocktail that originated at Harry's Bar in Venice. With drinks, it's nice to share the Tuscan sampler - house-baked flat bread served with hummus, a red and yellow chopped tomato relish and a creamy cucumber dill spread.

Twice, chef Tom Gloster's calamari proves crisp and exceptionally tender, paired with a vibrant tomato sauce. What really surprises, though, is a starter of limoncello (Italian lemon liqueur) shrimp, which I assume will be too sweet. Instead, the well-grilled, skewered, glazed shellfish is plated over a citrusy sauce that's neither acidic nor sugary.

Having grown accustomed to boring salmon dishes, I'm taken with an entree of pistachio-crusted salmon, nicely cooked and served with brown butter, roasted potatoes and bright baby carrots, string beans and snow peas. Another winner is shrimp wrapped in pancetta over a mellow white-bean salad, the sweet, tender shellfish playing well against its crisp, salty wrapper. My favorite is a dish called rustica di mare, a Mediterranean-style stew of cod, shrimp and mussels in a saffron tomato broth, a hunk of peasant bread rising from its depths.

A main course of barbecued chicken salad (glazed grilled breast over a mixture of baby greens, roasted corn, tomatoes and white Cheddar in an oven-roasted-tomato ranch dressing) proves a canny choice, as does a grilled-chicken and Swiss chard sandwich with caramelized garlic and melted fontina, Parmesan and asiago cheeses. I'm also happy with a sliced sirloin steak and fontina sandwich with caramelized cipollini onions and smoked tomatoes on garlic bread.

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Two knockout finales are a lush brandied bread pudding with house-made caramel, and vanilla ice cream and warm cinnamon-and-sugar doughnuts with raspberry-cream dipping sauce. Amazing, both.

KITCHEN SLIP-UPS

The pizza-like grilled flat bread topped with tomato, basil and mozzarella is marred by pale tomatoes. Another flatbread, this one with eggplant and mozzarella, has a soggy crust and an unwarranted balsamic drizzle. Also, the otherwise flavorsome chicken farfalle (with roasted corn, asparagus, portobello mushrooms and radicchio) features over-grilled chicken and a surfeit of sauce.

BOTTOM LINE

Hits far exceed misses at this affordable, good-time place that couldn't have appeared at a better time.

Reviewed by Joan Reminick, 12/31/08.