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The Purloined Menu 

Strega Nona

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I'd been attempting pasta all week, and turning out rubbery strips with more bounce and heft than seemed appropriate. Eventually, we were ready for a bowl of the more ordinary variety, which is exactly what we got at Strega Nona. The menu's been streamlined since the restaurant opened in the spring, but the general effect--dishes more interesting on paper than on the plate--remains the same.

Bruschettone: Hearty grilled bread sounds like such a charming way to warm up to dinner, but the actuality is closer to one of those giant heroes delis like to whip up for the gang. The toppings tend to be tasty, but the task of slicing up the squishy sandwich daunting. Too much and too much work before dinner.

Scupidu with wild mushrooms: Cute wiggly pasta rolling around in a mushroom lagoon.Extremely rich, as porcini tend to be. Not extremely interesting, as porcini ought to be.

Green-tea noodles with grilled shrimp: We had a nasty tangle with this dish early in Strega Nona's career. It used to be gloppy. We weren't tempted to try again.

Grilled shrimp and calamari: More multiple choice. Decent calamari and shrimp lounge around trying to choode among self-styled pestos--one olivey, one tomatoey, one standard basil. No need to agonize, they're all pretty good.

Bucasilli with roasted eggplant: Warm, lightly spiced with red pepper flakes, comforting.

Rotelloni: Big "cartwheel" pasta and sausage rounds turning in slightly acidic sauce, evoking memories of some grade-school standby.

Rolled eggplant with herbed ricotta filling: Basically eggplant cannelloni. The best part is the thick undercoat of hearty tomato sauce.

Roasted tomato: Another oddly constructed dish--pasta hiding out inside the tomato, bread crumbs running amok in the sauce. Who thought of this--and why?

Flat crisps: Looks like someone got out all the ingredients for an appetizer, and then the phone rang.A little pool of red pepper paste over here, some spinach over there, several blocks of unimproved feta stacked in the middle. Kind of reminds you of the Italian flag, kind of reminds you of Italian food. The caraway and cumin in the peppers confuse things, however, which apparently is the idea behind the food here. Italian-ish multiculti.

We had tiramisu for dessert, which was so rich and brown-sugar laden, it seemed more of a creme bru-su. After an evening of inoffensive but uninspired dishes, that pasta back home--flawed but heartfelt--wasn't looking half bad.

Strega Nona 3747 N. Southport, is open 5:30 to 10 Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 Friday and Saturday, and 5 to 10 Sunday. Call 244-0990 for more.

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