by Lauren McAllister & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & e have peered into Tito Macaroni's perky red and green dining area many times while window-shopping on Sherman Avenue in Coeur d'Alene. Feeling hungry after viewing the hundreds of shiny, colorful automobiles at the annual Car d'Alene festival last weekend, we headed in for dinner with three small diners in tow. Lucky for us, the crowds were still outside and we managed to get a big table near the middle of the restaurant.

The kids liked the fact that at Tito's the tablecloths are paper and there are plenty of crayons for playing Hangman and drawing pictures of superheroes. We enjoyed the chance to partake of an appetizer while dining with three kids. We chose the antipasto sampler ($17). Instead of the usual marinated artichoke hearts, olives and cheeses, at Tito's you can select three items from the appetizer section of the menu. We opted for the breaded and fried mozzarella, classic bruschetta and stuffed mushrooms.

The kids didn't go for the fried mozz, but we gobbled it up -- especially the accompanying pomodoro sauce. The stuffed mushrooms were loaded with a five-cheese mix and pancetta bacon. They were served swimming in a garlicky, oily mixture and were understandably rich -- maybe a little too decadent for their own good. The bruschetta was kind of bland -- soft bread with thinly sliced tomatoes, fresh basil and a bit of parmesan cheese. But with the addition of some of the oil and balsamic vinegar available on the table, the bruschetta perked up considerably. Other appetizers available on the antipasto platter or singly include breaded calamari ($8) or mussels steamed in a tomato-saffron-garlic broth ($10).

Entrees include your choice of soup or salad, and we tried both. The minestrone soup is not traditional style, with its combination of beans and pasta in a tomato broth. Here, it featured white beans and yellow squash in basil pesto broth -- a bit salty, but still quite enjoyable. My partner's house salad with creamy garlic dressing was also nicely done.

We had passed the open-flame pizza oven on the way to our table, and the pizzas were indeed tempting. They include the usual pepperoni, Hawaiian and Margherita, as well as a little more unusual-sounding Mediterranean with basil pesto, grilled chicken, artichoke hearts, roma tomatoes, feta and toasted cashews ($13).

Of course there is an ample pasta portion of the menu as well, with freshly made pastas serving as a base for such classics as spaghetti bolognese ($10.50) and linguine with clam sauces -- either spicy red, roasted garlic cream or tradition wine and butter with bacon ($17). According to the menu, the best-selling entree is a stuffed pasta -- artichoke and mushroom cannelloni ($15) with alfredo and tomato sauces. My dining partner opted for the chicken parmesano ($17). The breaded chicken was crispy on the outside and moist and tender on the inside. The thick crust was a great way to soak up the chunky, zesty pomodoro sauce. The spaghetti and sauteed fresh zucchini, yellow squash and chunky red and green peppers rounded out this pleasant entree.

On the recommendation of our waiter, I chose the halibut di parma, which was a halibut filet wrapped in prosciutto and baked. This was an interesting preparation, with the prosciutto getting a bit crisp, while the halibut stayed moist and took on the slightest smoky, salty flavor from the prosciutto. The accompanying artichoke heart and herb risotto was rich and delicious.

The kids' meals ($4) -- spaghetti with butter, spaghetti with meatballs, and macaroni and cheese -- were a hit as well, with the exception of the macaroni and cheese. "Not everybody makes Kraft macaroni and cheese," I explained to my annoyed 5-year old. Still, the kids all loved their cool cups with pointy lids, and the ice cream sundaes that came with their meals. Which gave us a chance to enjoy a dessert as well.

We picked two to share: the amaretto cherry creme brulee and the old Italian standby, tiramisu ($5). I wanted the Italian chocolate pudding with strawberries and whipped cream, but to my dismay, our server reported the strawberries, were -- Mama Mia! -- frozen.

Now, normally I am against any additions, enhancements or even garnishes to my creme brulee; our server, declaring a similar sentiment, still gushed about this dessert. And it was a delight. Three bing cherries formed an island in the crisp sugar topping, and the amaretto-flavored custard was smooth and sleek, setting off the dollop of white chocolate mousse on the side especially well. I wasn't disappointed with the tiramisu; it was a pleasant concoction with just the right amount of rich coffee taste.

Service throughout our evening was knowledgeable and as helpful as could be. Although some of the decor at Tito's looks as if it may have been hanging out since the '80s, I hear those styles are comin' around again. And that's exactly what we'll be doing.

Tito Macaroni's is in the Coeur d'Alene Plaza on Sherman Ave. Open daily, 11 am to close. Call (208) 66-PASTA

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