by Mike Corrigan & r & OK, so it's situated inside of a strip mall. It's also (at the time of this writing) temporarily located on a dirt road thanks to all the obnoxious street construction along Regal. In spite of all this, Team Inlander sallied forth one sweltering weekday afternoon recently on a quest to sample the rumored Italian delights found at Ferrante's Cafe, a relatively new dining establishment at the far end of Spokane's South Side.

Since opening last November, Ferrante's has caught on fast as one of this neighborhood's most urbane yet casual stops for lunch and dinner. On the day of our visit, we arrived just before noon and easily found a table. By the time we left, however, seating was certainly at a premium, as the place was packed with buttoned-down suburbanites including several extended families with kids. Lively it was.

And lovely, too. As you walk in from the parking lot, the strip mall ambience of the facade dissolves away, replaced by a sophisticated interior space with a Euro-influenced d & eacute;cor set against a warm rust and pea green color scheme. The caf & eacute; is designed to create the illusion of sitting outside in the evening on the patio of an Italian caf & eacute; -- and so long as you keep your eyes away from the camo-green drop ceiling, that illusion is fairly effective.

There's no tableside service at Ferrante's -- but it's not entirely serve-yourself either. After picking out a table and perusing the menu, you walk up to the counter and place your order with the caf & eacute;'s very friendly and helpful staff. When ready, the chef will call out your order by name from the kitchen through a narrow window. Then you pick it up -- along with utensils, napkins and condiments -- and return to your seat to commence noshing. You pay on your way out, and -- get this -- tipping is actually discouraged.

Menu selections include Italian favorites like thin-crust pizza (ranging from the $9.50 "cheese" to the $14.25 "meathead"), calzones ($10.25-$11.75 for the large) and paninis (with house greens for $7.95) along with club, turkey, pastrami and grinder sandwiches ($7.25 with a small side salad and chips) and an intriguing selection of made-to-order salads ($9.25-$10.25 for a whole order, three bucks less for a half). There's a kids' menu, too, and a decent beverage selection that includes beer, wine and those adorable little bottles of San Pellegrino mineral water. Ferrante's is also one of the few places around town where you can get real Italian gelato -- a lovely ice cream treat -- in about 10 different flavors ($2.60 for a single scoop).

We found the $12.75 margherita pizza to be fairly large in size with quality ingredients (mozzarella, chopped fresh basil and slices of the sweetest tomato we've tasted this season) and a tender, crispy, very thin crust which would have been even better had it not been slightly soggy near the center with an excess of cooking oil. Our enormous spinach calzone ($10.25) -- the biggest we've encountered in Spokane -- glistened as it beckoned us to explore its warm, fragrant depths (a smaller version with a side salad is available for the same price). Inside, we found a winning combination of fresh garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, spinach and pesto. It was excellent and belt-busting, with a nicely chewy crust -- mwah. The Mediterranean salad ($9.25 for a whole) was also huge and definitely made for sharing -- with two or even three others. Though overwhelmed with a bit too much of the otherwise tasty, slightly sweet vinaigrette-style house dressing, it sported a delicious combination of textures and flavors in the form of chopped romaine and a generous topping of sun-dried tomatoes, black olives, and grated mozzarella cheese. The hot pastrami sandwich (with a small salad and crinkle-cut kettle chips for $7.95) was the least successful entr & eacute;e of the bunch. The sandwich roll was overly toasted and the pastrami itself was on the tough side of tender. The whole thing was smothered in real melted cheddar (a plus), but I kept thinking it needed something more -- a splash of brown mustard perhaps?

The service, limited as it is by design, was pleasant and effective. A staff member periodically checked on each table, and when we needed wrap for our leftovers, we were quickly set up with appropriate packaging.

And we just couldn't get out of there without trying the gelato. We found the kid's scoop ($1.95) to be more than adequate after our filling lunch. The only one I tasted -- the white chocolate with raspberry swirl -- was firm, creamy, smooth, sublime.

Viva Italia!

Ferrante's Caf & eacute; (443-6304) 4516 South Regal, Open Tuesday-Saturday from 11 am to 8 pm.

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