(THIS RESTAURANT HAS CLOSED 2/10)

Speranza means hope - in Italian and in Woodbury, for diners and for business. The long-anticipated restaurant opens where stellar Stresa East reigned. It's flashy and extravagant in a vaguely Vegas way, from the diligently overblown decor to the inimitably underdressed hostesses.

But, oblivious to irony and committed to dazzle, the joint is fun, too. And it's packed as if the economy already has turned around. Most important, the Italianate food almost always is excellent. Chef Michael Meehan earned three stars at eateries as different from each other as the elegant Mill River Inn and the colorful Tupelo Honey, the quirky Veritage and serene Clearwater. He turns the theatrical Speranza Fine Italian Food Studio, as it is ornately known, into his own stage.

THE BEST

Vibrant spring-pea soup flecked with pancetta refreshes any jaded appetite. The "hand crafted meatball" - there better not be any other kind - pairs tastefully with wild arugula salad and whipped ricotta. Exceptional fettuccine carbonara, pappardelle Bolognese and creamy risotto with shrimp and spinach each evoke Italian evenings. "Agnello due" translates into a juicy rack of lamb and even better braised-lamb crostini, finished with a butternut-squash riff on caponata. The updated chicken cacciatore works, too. Oven-roasted whole branzino swims in moist and right, as do pan-seared swordfish with a tomato-caper-olive sauce, pan-roasted snapper, and pan-roasted prawns. The Italian cheese plate, with fig jam and a honeycomb, is a ripe finale. An individual baked Alaska suits Speranza. And house-made zeppole turn the meal into a little feast.

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THE REST

Baked Quahog clams capped with a very big shrimp and crabmeat define overkill. Ravioli, with pea-and-porchetta filling in brown butter, seem ordinary. Likewise, veal chop Milanese. An alternative: the lighthearted veal chop Parmesan-style. Dinner reservations recommended weekdays, necessary weekends.

THE BOTTOM LINE

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Showtime!

Reviewed by Peter M. Gianotti, April 10, 2009.