by Susan Hamilton

It's one of the oldest cuisines in Europe and one of the best known around the world. Pasta, pizza, flavorful sauces and savory treatments of meat characterize Italian cooking. What's not to like about it?

Michael Pierce, the new owner and chef of CAPERS BISTRO in Coeur d'Alene, agrees. Working as a chef at Tito Macaroni's in the Lake City gave him plenty of experience with the popular fare. Now Pierce has brought Capers back to its Italian roots, established back when the place was Papino's.

Traditional Italian cuisine is featured in the intimate caf & eacute; off Fourth Street. Customers appreciate Capers' ample portions of pastas as well as chicken and steak dishes made with fresh ingredients.

"We're popular with the lunch crowd," Pierce says. A noontime favorite is the house minestrone -- hearty and topped with melted Parmesan. The accompanying garlic bread comes with a chunky pomodoro sauce for dipping. For those who aren't afraid to get messy, the Italian sausage sandwich is juicy, smothered in pomodoro sauce and topped with mozzarella. A tortellini pasta salad is tossed with bits of salami, mozzarella, fresh basil and herbal vinaigrette. Lighter portions of Capers' pasta dishes are also available at lunch, such as penne primavera (a heart-healthy favorite).

Capers' signature dish is a plate-filling portion of homemade lasagna. The shrimp picatta is smooth and bold, with saut & eacute;ed shrimp, herbs and a creamy sauce. A rich Mediterranean chicken rigatoni has additions of sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, feta cheese and cream. Steak lovers will appreciate the 16-ounce T-bone steak with Tuscan seasonings. Not to be forgotten is a herb-crusted salmon dish topped with lemon caper cream sauce.

The family-run caf & eacute;'s pastel walls are adorned with European photos of the former owners. "It's a great setting," Pierce says, "and we have very reasonable prices."

Capers is located at 315 Walnut St. in Coeur d'Alene. Summer hours are Tuesday-Saturday from 11 am-10 pm, and the deck is open. Call (208) 664-9670.

When the heat is on, we want our food fast and tasty. Two new area restaurants deliver just that. The recently opened TACO DEL MAR "is in between dining and fast food and offers made-to-order, healthy Mexican food," says owner Tim Pigatto. The shop across from Riverfront Park is popular at lunchtime, Pigatto adds.

Taco del Mar's specialty is a fish taco made with Alaskan cod and covered with spicy white sauce and house salsa. The Seattle-based franchise also features "burritos so big you need a forklift" with chicken, roasted pork in mole or spicy ground beef. The tasty burritos have been voted the best by readers of the Seattle Weekly for three years running.

The menu also features hard and soft tacos, a taco salad, nachos and quesadillas. And the smoothie bar fits right in with the eatery's beach-themed atmosphere, its bright colors evoking a Beach Boys tune. Surf's up!

Taco del Mar, at 605 W. Spokane Falls Blvd., is open Monday-Saturday from 10:30 am-7 pm. Call 455-7427.

Out in the Valley, the vibe is Hawaiian at the HULA HUT GRILL. The newly opened restaurant on Sprague just east of Argonne was previously a burger joint. Owners Bill and Suzette Rose remodeled the place and redecorated with Hawaiian pictures, hanging plants and Island tunes playing in the background.

"We saw the need in Spokane for other than fast food," Bill Rose says. "And we treat our customers like family, ohana in Hawaiian."

Hula Hut's menu includes Polynesian and Western dishes. Island favorites are chicken katsu (coated with crispy panko flakes and deep fried to a golden brown) and Kalua pork (slow-roasted, then shredded). Hula Hut specialties include house-marinated beef, chicken and short ribs that are flame grilled. For those who prefer mainland food, there's the surf 'n' turf with marinated steak and coconut shrimp or salmon and a 12-ounce rib-eye steak.

Hula Hut's fried noodles are a must-try, made with noodles from San Francisco's Chinatown. The teri beef sandwich with Hula Hut sauce served on a potato bun is a refreshing alternative to a burger. On Fridays and Saturdays, the eatery serves authentic Island fare of lau lau, Kalua pork, lomi salmon, poi, rice and haupia.

The grill, located at 9420 E. Sprague, is open Monday-Saturday from 11 am-9 pm and has catering services. Call 921-6670.

Two upcoming dinners at fine area restaurants celebrate two renowned Northwest wineries.

This Sunday, the STEAM PLANT GRILL hosts a winemaker dinner with Kristina Mielke-van Loben Sels of Arbor Crest. Highlights of the dinner are a sea scallop appetizer paired with a 2000 crystal pinot, a tenderloin trio entr & eacute;e served with a 1999 merlot and a dessert of blackberry bread pudding accompanied by a 1999 cabernet franc. The July 21 dinner begins at 6 pm and costs $55 per person. Call 777-3900.

On Wednesday, July 24, at 6:30 pm, Oregon's Elk Cove Winery will pair some of their best with the inspired Northwest cuisine of FUGAZZI's Tom Schultz (who will soon be leaving for Seattle's Place Pigalle). The $75-per-person, five-course dinner includes a hot, smoked salmon with boursin mousse hors d'oeuvre with a 2000 pinot gris and a main course of grilled rack of venison and morel sauce paired with a 1999 pinot noir reserve. Call 838-1229 for reservations.

Enjoy the full moon, twinkling stars and superb views at the 12th annual KPBX EVENING UNDER THE STARS on July 25 at Arbor Crest's Cliff House. The festivities begin at 6 pm with Mediterranean-style food by Catered for You and Arbor Crest wines. A light supper buffet follows, accompanied by acoustic music, jazz and a silent auction. Tickets are $27. Call 328-5729.

Spokane County Interstate Fair: Fair Food Drive-Thru @ Spokane County Fair & Expo Center

Fri., Sept. 18, 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Sat., Sept. 19, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. and Sun., Sept. 20, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
  • or