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Chianti's lasagna Bolognese

What makes Chianti feel like a favorite little neighborhood restaurant? In fact, it’s not little at all—the place can seat 160. And it’s in the middle of a strip mall off a busy highway, not in a residential neighborhood. Yet once you take a seat in a banquette or booth in one of the three Mediterranean-themed dining rooms, the place feels genuinely cozy. Better yet, the warm welcome at the door and the service by experienced people who embrace hospitality make you feel happily at home. Chianti has become one of my go-to places when I want to entertain people in a homey but Sunday-best ambiance with good food, dependable service, fine Italian wines—and at moderate prices.  It’s consistent, and there are few places that can make that claim in our local restaurant scene, especially in this price bracket.

The menu offers familiar Italian and Italian-American food from several different regions of Italy (mostly from Abruzzi and Tuscany) paired with Italian and California wines. You can enjoy house-made focaccia and a crusty loaf served with fresh pesto while you’re perusing the extensive menu of full and half plates. Choices include traditional spaghetti and meatballs ($17.95), lasagne Bolognese, linguine with shrimp or clams, chicken piccata ($22.95), chicken parmigiana or calf’s liver sautéed with pancetta and caramelized onions ($22.95). Simple and lovely filet of sole Livornese mingles the fish with tomato, olives, capers and a basil sauce for $22.95. On the nights when swordfish is on the menu, that’s worth trying too.

There are four veal dishes, a Gorgonzola gnocchi with either marinara or Bolognese sauce, and pappardelle with shrimp, chicken or prepared Alfredo with a child’s portion available, too. Seafood lovers who want pasta with it will zero in on the spaghetti pescatore, which sautés shrimp, sea scallops, clams, mussels, calamari and herbs and tosses them with spaghetti in a light and spicy marinara sauce.

One of my favorite dishes is the risotto with shrimp, lobster bits and asparagus tips. It’s comfort food of the highest order, creamy and rich, tasting both of the sea and of the seasonings in the arborio. There are plenty of appetizers to order for sharing plates as well as half portions of menu favorites, each for about $10.

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A tasty tiramisu

Off-the-menu and available occasionally is the pasta with Sunday sauce, a hearty meal that combines Italian sausage, pork ribs and a meatball with tomato sauce over penne pasta (sprinkle of cheese on top). Big flavors here for $17.95. A weekly special is Maine lobster night, a full New England-type lobster dinner (including clam chowder) for $24.95. You have to reserve a day in advance.

All the pasta is made fresh in-house daily and the kitchen sources organic and local ingredients whenever possible. Desserts are the usual tiramisu, zabaglione (a light custard made with sweet wine) or the bread pudding, made from croissants, with ice cream and caramel sauce. This thing is outrageously tasty and our server, Joseph, who recommended it, said he often takes a piece home at the end of the night and reheats it for breakfast. I would do that.

Chianti owners Josie and Edward Pizziti, originally from Buffalo, owned successful restaurants in San Francisco. After vacationing in Sarasota, the couple decided to retire here in 2012. When they got tired of playing golf (it didn’t take long), they went back into the restaurant business, cooking the recipes that belonged to Edward’s mother, who grew up in Abruzzi and Tuscany. Their family-owned and operated white-cloth restaurant here has been in operation on Clark Road for three years. May it stay another 30.

The Verdict: A family-owned Italian restaurant that’s comfortable, stylish and excels in regional Italian food, wine, and service at moderate prices. There’s every reason to make this one of your go-to places for entertaining friends, family or just yourself.

Chianti Ristorante Italiano

3900 Clark Road, Sarasota. (941) 952-3186

Hours: Dinner nightly, 5-10 p.m. Banquet room for private dining for up to 30. Prix fixe (three courses) from 4-6 p.m. Lunch by special request for parties of 30 or more.

FULL BAR: Happy Hour nightly from 4-6:30 p.m.

Credit cards: All major cards accepted

Mall Parking; Handicapped accessible

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