Greek Gusto

by SUSAN HAMILTON & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he sun-kissed climate and azure seas of the Mediterranean contribute to a certain exuberance and zest for life among many of the region's residents, and helps make the region one of my favorite areas of the world. I love the people, sights and atmosphere. So it's no surprise that I was eager to dine at Opa, where Greek and Italian cuisine abound.

An Inlander colleague had warned me that the wait time for food at this restaurant can be long and the food less than spectacular. But that was more than two months ago, and it seems things have improved at this relatively new northside restaurant.

As my family and I entered the cozy restaurant, we were greeted with the flavorful aroma of saut & eacute;ed garlic and baked cheese. Lively Greek music played overhead and many of the tables were full on this Friday evening. Heeding my colleague's warning, we arrived just before 6 pm, hoping that our meal wouldn't be delayed by orders from a full house of diners. We were seated promptly at a table surrounded by soft blue walls, pictures of Greek and Italian scenes, and a view of the fireplace. Plenty of potted plants (albeit not live) soften the spaces between tables.

We decided to share the Greek meze appetizer ($13), which delivered on its promised welcome to Greece. The spanakopita was as rich and authentic as those I've tasted in Athens. Flaky phyllo crust enfolds Opa's savory version with feta and spinach filling. A similar, though creamier, treatment was found in the tyropita. Delicious dolmades offered rolled grape leaves filled with seasoned rice. We scooped up the addicting tzatziki (yogurt-cucumber sauce) with fresh, warm pita bread, and used it to make small gyro sandwiches with the strips of lamb meat. This appetizer also included the makings of Greek salad -- kalamata olives, cucumbers, tomatoes and feta cheese. All in all, it was very filling and tasty, especially complemented by Greek Kretikos wine ($6 a glass).

Before we could finish our appetizer, our entr & eacute;es arrived. My Greek kota ($13) featured chicken breast marinated in butter, lemon, wine and fresh garlic. Served over al dente fettuccini noodles, it was tender and bathed in a feta cheese sauce with mushrooms. Though not as savory as the meze appetizer, it was good enough to save remains of the large portion for another meal. My husband's baked lasagna ($10) was an excellent choice. Noodles, oozy cheeses (mozzarella, ricotta and parmesan) and meat were layered with wide noodles and a flavorful sauce that was slightly sweet without the least hint of bitterness. The family recipe reminded me of Italian sauces that had been simmered all day long in a nona's kitchen. The surrounding baked mozzarella cheese on top gave the dish an almost crusty chewiness, and it wasn't heavy as some lasagnas can be. Always a shrimp fan, my daughter chose prawns souvlaki ($15) with large shrimp marinated in white wine and butter, cooked on a skewer and served over Greek rice with that luscious tzatziki sauce and handmade pita bread. A salad, dressed in a nice vinaigrette, accompanied her meal. She pronounced the prawns light and tasty, and promptly finished them off. The rice was flavored with lemon and herbs -- too lemony for her tastes, but enjoyed by my husband and me.

We couldn't leave without dessert. I chose a housemade Greek baklava ($3). Its many layers of butter-drenched phyllo pastry were filled with honey and chopped nuts, then soaked in a cinnamon-flavored honey-lemon sauce. This is one rich dessert that's hard to resist. My husband ordered the Italian tiramisu ($4). Another layered dessert, this one was well executed, with vanilla sponge cake covered with espresso and Marsala wine and layered with mascarpone cream cheese and chocolate. My daughter opted for the Italian spumoni ice cream ($4). Creamy, rich vanilla, strawberry and pistachio ice cream was topped with whipped cream.

Next time we dine at Opa, we want to delve more into the Italian side of owner Steve Dimitriadis' menu. He boasts that he has a great Sicilian pizza -- with 24 different types of toppings ($10-$24). Opa's made-from-scratch Italian minestrone soup ($4.75) or Italian antipasti salad ($6 or $8.25) would be fitting accompaniments to the pizza. Dimitriadis also has a good selection of panini sandwiches -- from tutta carne (meats) to Napolitana (cheese and veggies) for $8. Pasta dishes include baked manicotti, chicken fettuccine and shrimp scampi. Opa also offers other dishes, like Mediterranean-style baked Pacific salmon, American sandwiches and salads.

Overall, our dining experience at Opa was a reflection of the meaning of its name -- happy. The food was authentic and tasty, service prompt and helpful, and the atmosphere made us feel like we'd had a brief Mediterranean getaway.