by Lauren McAllister

Downtown Spokane has enjoyed a rebirth of sorts in the last half decade or so, with a number of new restaurants opening their doors: Fugazzi, Quinn's, Red Robin, the Sawtooth Grill, Chevy's, the Steam Plant Grill and the Palm Court are all relative newcomers. Through it all, however, since 1982, Europa has welcomed diners looking for hearty Italian fare.

We decided to visit on a chilly Friday evening, and instead of sitting in the pleasant restaurant area, with its high-back wooden chairs, we opted for the cozy lounge, with antique settees and big wicker chairs pulled up to small tables. The entire menu is available in the lounge, where the walls are painted deep burgundy with the open-beam ceiling in a sage green. Exposed brick adds to the ambience.

The menu is vast and filled with standard favorites, as well as some more creative options. We decided to try the antipasto misto ($10) for our appetizer. This is always a favorite, with various combinations of tangy, marinated vegetables, rich cheeses and salty meats. The Europa version included a ramekin of creamy Gorgonzola instead of the usual provolone or mozzarella. The cheese went especially well with the toasted pogacha bread. The only disappointment was with the olives, which were just the ordinary canned, black and green varieties.

A nice touch on the Europa menu is the heart-healthy designation -- meaning fat accounts for 30 percent or less of total calories. In the appetizer department, the heart-healthy fresh Roma tomatoes and basil layered with feta cheese and herbed olive oil ($8) sounds like a winner.

Entr & eacute;es include a choice of soup or Caesar or tossed green salad. I tried the Caesar. Crispy romaine lettuce was topped with creamy herb vinaigrette -- not a real Caesar, but not a bad salad. Much more impressive, however, was my companion's spinach salad, to which he was able to upgrade for a couple of bucks extra. This was a delightful and hearty creation, with lots of sliced boiled eggs, bacon bits, red onion and a sweet-tart dressing. Judging from this dish, some of the other specialty salads would probably make a good meal. The harvest pear salad ($10.25) with citrus poached salmon, candied pecans, goat cheese and sun-dried cranberries sounds especially good. A chicken salad ($9) with mushrooms, black olives, peppers and mozzarella cheese gets the heart-healthy stamp, as does the homemade minestrone soup ($3.50 a bowl).

There is a huge selection of pasta entrees. While not one is heart-healthy, they all sound tasty, making it difficult to choose. In addition to various lasagnas and spaghettis, there's cheese tortellini in a creamy sweet red pepper sauce ($14). Our server was particularly impressed with the chicken Gorgonzola, with mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes, garnished with toasted walnuts ($14.50). The prawns pinolle with roasted garlic, fresh spinach, Roma tomatoes, pine nuts and feta cheese with linguine ($17) was also high on his list. I opted for the seafood manicotti ($16), which he warned me was an exceptionally rich dish. Indeed it was filled with a blend of crab, shrimp, scallops, and cheese and baked in a lemon dill cream sauce. Whoa, Nellie! Although I enjoyed this dish for the first few bites, he was right about it being too rich. It quickly became overwhelming. The filling was mostly cheese and did have a nice flavor but could have used a bit more seafood. The abundant lemon dill sauce added to the creaminess of this dish.

The menu includes a big selection of pizzas and calzones that are a cut above the standard pepperoni and Canadian bacon-pineapple combos. The European pizza ($7-$23) has five cheeses, roasted garlic white sauce and fresh basil, with basil pesto, chicken and bay shrimp, while "Our Favorite" ($6.50-$21) gets a heart-healthy seal of approval for its combination of chicken, spinach, feta, mozzarella, provolone, mushrooms and onions with a whole wheat crust. One calzone in particular sounds interesting -- the Gamberetto ($9) -- with spicy garlic-marinated shrimp, basil, roasted peppers, green onions, Roma tomatoes, feta and, yes, more garlic.

A feature unique to Europa is the pastry rotolo. The menu states that these "pita roll-ups" have been around since Europa first opened its doors. The crust is actually more like a croissant than a pita. As with a calzone, different combinations of fillings are baked inside. My companion opted for the chicken, spinach and walnut with a light cheese sauce ($10). This was a straightforward, nice combination of flavors, with the garlicky cheese sauce tying it all together.

Desserts at Europa are big and beautiful, as the restaurant employs its own pastry chef. I chose the triple chocolate mousse torte. This was a luscious three-layer concoction with a deep, dark chocolate layer for the base, a middle layer with a lighter chocolate mocha flavor and a top layer of rich creamy white chocolate. Delicious! My companion's chocolate nut tart was delectable as well, with a rich crust, lots of crunchy pecans and chunks of chocolate.

Europa offers a wonderful atmosphere for gathering with friends. The food is tasty, well-prepared and reasonably priced, while the vast menu offers options for returning again and again.

Spokane Arts Awards @ Lucky You Lounge

Sat., Sept. 26, 8 p.m.
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