Uncle Bacala's unfurls the checked tablecloth, and then covers it with brown paper.

It's the first hint that what's coming is more careful than carefree, more fauxthentic than faithful. There's no baccal ... at Uncle Bacala's.

But you can have a good or better meal at this entertaining place. Choices abound. If you're here for an Italian-American reverie, use your imagination.

Uncle Bacala's initially made a major marinara splash a few years ago under celebrity chef David Ruggerio. Ups and downs followed. But the place recovered gingerly and is now cooking under chef Joseph A. Cacace, who grew up in Lynbrook and worked at Fresco and Parkview at The Boathouse in Manhattan.

Bucatini all'Amatriciana arrives full flavored and very good, with a shot of pancetta and prosciutto. And pappardelle in a Bolognese variation with veal and mushrooms rivals it.

Cavatelli Norma, with tomato, eggplant and ricotta salata, also has something to declare. But the touted spaghetti with meatballs doesn't. Spaghetti alla carbonara turns heavy-duty.

The house's stuffed rice balls show up pretty dry; the clams oreganata, singed. And the seafood salad leans heavily on chewy scungilli.

But mozzarella in carrozza, made with sourdough, is a hearty, flavorful choice, as are the combo of fresh mozzarella, roasted peppers and tomatoes, and the eatery's namesake salad, with chickpeas and beets.

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Cod alla Siciliana: broiled amply garlicked, capped with bread crumbs and sauced with tomatoes, capers and olives. It's good - and way ahead of tilapia oreganata, a slightly overdone exercise in boredom.

The seafood with spark at Uncle Bacala's are the snapper alla Livornese, spurred by olives and capers; and the unadorned, light and satisfying branzino.

Barolo-braised short ribs with polenta bring in a northern accent, and they're sufficiently bracing to carry you through early autumn. Uncle Bacala's prepares generous and tasty Parmigianas, chicken and veal.

Chicken scarpariello, which must have as many renditions as there are cooks, receives the sausage-and-potatoes treatment here, and is well worth sampling. The herb-roasted loin of pork, however, is overcooked.

Desserts range widely. The specialty is dubbed "coffee and doughnuts," or zeppole, with cappuccino semi-freddo. The zeppole aren't exactly airy, but they'll do en route to the Feast of San Gennaro.

Cannoli control the sweetness, keep the crisp shell and are easily recommended. You can skip the "waffelini," or triangular waffles, burdened with too-caramelized bananas and more; and the dull apple tart. In what must be an effort to expand the repertoire, Uncle Bacala's also offers that newfound Italian classic, Oreo cheesecake.

It could make you spill your limoncello.

Reviewed by Peter M. Gianotti, 9/9/07.