True North 

The new Marena's: good as ever.

In northern Italy, rice and polenta are staples of the regional cuisine, whereas in the south, pasta is more common. In the north, it's butter versus the south's olive oil. Likewise, cream sauces are more prevalent in the north due to the abundance of dairy farms. And in the heart of northern Italy lies the Emilia-Romagna region, known for such delights as Parma's Parmesan cheese and prosciutto ham.

Marena's, located in the Evergreen District, specializes in northern Italian cuisine, particularly that of Emilia-Romagna.

Earlier this year, Rena and Jack Franklin, longtime owners of Marena's, sold the restaurant to former Dux chef Mortez Gerani. The restaurant is now called Marena's Gerani, though little else has changed. The vibrantly painted dining rooms are as inviting as ever, the wait staff is familiar (what a relief), and the guitar player still quietly performs in the corner. Gone is the host, while in is the complementary Italian sparkling wine.

For starters we selected the castellara and the caprese. The castellara was a lightly breaded and seasoned crab-and-shrimp cake that was fat with juicy seafood and served with a salsa verde of diced cucumber, tomato, and green onions topped with shredded, golden-fried leeks. The caprese featured soft buffalo mozzarella cheese and sliced tomatoes with fresh basil circling a bed of baby greens and drizzled with a blend of olive oil and balsamic vinegar delicious.

For soup, we tried the cioppino, a traditional assorted-seafood soup with angel hair pasta, basil, and a light tomato broth, and the chef's special for the evening, an Italian vegetable soup with broccoli and cauliflower florets, onion, beans, and mushrooms that mingled well in a brown broth. Both soups were rich and flavorful.

The insalata del contadino e tonno was a large bed of mixed baby greens and spinach leaves with a dressing of herbs and balsamic vinegar topped with succulent, lightly grilled tuna strips. The insalata del giorno was a blend of baby greens, radicchio, and thinly sliced prosciutto placed next to a mixture of tomato, green onions, and chopped boiled egg. A balsamic vinaigrette drizzled over the greens made this irresistible.

For the entrées, one of my dining companions chose the tasty fruitti misto di mare, a large bowl of sautéed jumbo shrimp, scallops, and mushrooms tossed with angel hair pasta in a white wine sauce with a hint of lemon. The fileto de bue demonstrated perfect preparation. The two beef tenderloin filets were prepared to order and served with jumbo roasted potato wedges and a bed of wilted spinach, Parmesan cheese, and a green peppercorn sauce. The fileto de bue's presentation was a creative twist on meat and potatoes and made it the entrée of the evening.

The scallopini di vitello piccatta showed the chef's respect for the delicacy of veal scallopini's flavor and texture. Two lightly sautéed veal scallops in a subtle lemon sauce made great companions for broccoli florets and polenta dressed with leeks. The entrée del giorno was grilled mahi mahi and shrimp dish with polenta and leeks. Unfortunately, this entrée lacked the luster of the others, and the portion was rather small.

For dessert, we ordered the mele con croccante, an apple-crumb-like dish with frozen vanilla custard. This dessert was huge, and we did our best to finish it. We also ordered the dolce al cucchiaio di nicciola (aka hazelnut cream), which was light, fluffy, and drizzled with chocolate sauce. My favorite -- the tartufo, a classic Italian chocolate truffle with a dreamy zabaglione cream center covered by a gianduia cream and dusted with cocoa powder. It was a chocoholic's dream come true.

Marena's Gerani is located at 1545 Overton Park Avenue. Reservations are requested, 278-9774. Appetizers: $9.95-$13.50; salads and soups: $6.50-$12.50; and entrées: $17.95-$23.95.

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