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A few general rules apply in the kitchen of Messina.

The only olive oil is extra virgin. The only vinegar is balsamic. And the grated cheese of choice is Parmigiano-Reggiano.

So, yeah, this place fits the profile of an Italian restaurant, as if any doubt remained after I saw the Roman mural painted on the dining room wall.

The inside looks like something you'd see in a north Jersey suburb - a noisy, brightly lit pizza shop next to a subdued, shadowy Italian restaurant. One wall separates the two contrasting environments, which allows Messina to serve all of your Italian needs. You can order a pizza to go, eat an inexpensive sub and fries for lunch, or have a more formal dinner.

My experience fell somewhere in between. I sat in the pizza shop and ordered an entrée, which came with a salad. The house Italian dressing offered a pleasant surprise. It resembled balsamic vinaigrette more than anything, which was fine by me. The greens fell short of optimal freshness, making them somewhat bland, but the perfectly blended dressing made up for it.

My cheese ravioli arrived with a pleasing coat of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano over the red sauce. A basket with two thin slices of crunchy garlic bread came with it.

As a hater of chain Italian restaurants - no offense to any fans out there - I like my pasta dishes unapologetically Italian, not toned down for mass appeal. I want to taste the oil in the marinara and smell the buttery garlic on the bread.

At Messina, I did. The fruity olive flavor announced itself with every chunky bite. And I sopped up the remaining red sauce with the aromatic bread.

Messina makes the marinara with canned tomatoes enhanced with olive oil, onions and fresh basil grown on a kitchen window sill, said co-owner, cook and Sicilian native Pat Ferrante. The other sauces - including marsala, alfredo and lemon, butter and garlic - are made à la carte.

I believe my experience at Messina only scratched the surface on this restaurant. There are many interesting sandwiches to try, such as the bomburger (grilled ham and American cheese) or the deviled burger (a ground beef patty topped with a hot sauce made by co-owner Peter Ferrante, also a Sicilian). Although a bit pricier, the lasagna made with hand-rolled pasta ($11.95) was among the intriguing dinner items, motivation for a return visit to this richly Italian locale.

Cheap Eats is a biweekly column on local restaurants' meals for less than $10. Suggestions are welcome. Reach Wade Malcolm at 771-2101 or wmalcolm@ydr.com.

If you go


LOCATION: Messina Italian Restaurant, 63 N. Main St. in Stewartstown

CUISINE: Italian and American

WADE'S PICK: cheese ravioli with marinara ($9.50)

PARKING: lot

HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

PRICE RANGE: $3.50 to $15.95

ALCOHOL: yes

SMOKING: no

ACCEPTS: Cash and major credit card

TAKEOUT: Yes

KID'S MENU: spaghetti with meatball, ravioli, chicken fingers, chicken nuggets, hamburger and fish sandwich. Prices range from $3.95 to $4.95.

DETAILS: 993-2526

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