A red exclamation point punctuates the sign of Sal's Ristorante , which brightens a bleak stretch of road in Smithtown. On wintry nights, the place has a certain radiance, its butternut squash-colored walls hung with resolutely cheerful art. Settle into one of the comfortable upholstered booths and order a glass of wine -- plus a focaccia pillow.
What you'll get is a big pouf of baked pizza dough topped with a zesty garlic, oil and herb mixture. Owner Salvatore Formica describes it as the fortunate outcome of a baking accident. Whatever its origins, it's hard to stop tearing off just another piece. Consider, as well, a personal-sized Napolitana pizzetta whose puffy-crisp crust is crowned with a bright meld of tomato sauce and mozzarella.
But rice balls here are leaden, flavorless. And both the minestrone and Italian wedding soup are underseasoned, as well.
Sharing a plate at lunch: A gummy and bland rendition of ricotta-stuffed manicotti and a lush and satisfying version of chicken Parmigiana. An odd couple. Meat lasagna is a classic, respectfully rendered. Better yet, one night, is the vibrant vegetable lasagna.
Executive chef Pedro Alvarez shows his skill in the pork chop ala cherry peppers -- thick, meaty, juicy and topped with a rousing marinara-hot pepper mix. Savory though it may be, however, bone-in chicken scarpariello turns up with more bones than meat.
Gnocchi Bolognese possesses that light, melting quality you look for in semolina dumplings. And occhi del bue arrabbiata -- short rigatoni in a spicy garlic and olive-laced red sauce -- delivers up just the right fiery kick.
The only house-made dessert, most nights, is cannoli. Otherwise, you'll find commercially sourced finales, among them a hazelnut truffle and a chocolate fondant layer cake. Not terrible; just boring.
In the end, what puts the exclamation point on Sal's is its inherent warmth. It's where you want to be on a chilly night.