The Gossiping Gourmet: Romance in a mundane spot

Lifestyle and LeisureDining and DrinkingRestaurantsCookingBars and ClubsCVS Caremark CorporationItaly

In a nondescript strip mall on 17th Street in Costa Mesa, located next to a Chixy Natural and a Bomburger, along with several other chain restaurants, is a very good family-owned Mediterranean-Italian bistro called Café Tria.

Large windows overlook romantic Irvine Avenue, while lights from CVS glimmer across the road. No, it's not a place to show off to your rich relatives from out of town, but we think you'll be impressed by the tasty food and the reasonable prices.

The décor is simple: black leather booths, marble tile floors and photos of Italy on the walls. There is also a small outdoor patio and a bar area in the front of the house that serves wine and beer.

The menu is a mixture of Middle Eastern and Italian. Appetizers range from bruschetta and mussels to boreks and babaganoush. There is also nice selection of salads. Wraps and paninis are offered at lunch only. Entrees include pizzas, pastas, kabobs and house specialties.

We highly recommend starting off with the Tria Trio, a platter of hummus, babaganoush, grape leaves and warm pita bread. The hummus tasted fresh and light, with a lovely creamy consistency and a tiny bit of texture. We thought it was made without any tahini and just a touch of garlic and cumin. The babaganoush was equally good. There was a subtle hint of smokiness to the eggplant, with a tinge of lemon and a perfect amount of fire. Grape leaves were stuffed with lemony rice and delicate spices. We loved it all and finished off the plate (even though it could have served four).

Our only real disappointment of the evening was the borek (spanokopita). The filo dough had few layers and wasn't flaky enough. The spinach was bland with no apparent salt, onions or herbs and very little cheese.

Entrees come with soup or salad and we chose the lentil soup — another winner! Like everything on the menu except dessert, it was freshly made in-house. This vegetarian treat had a smooth broth, and it was just slightly textured and full of flavor, accented with hints of cumin and herbs, then punctuated with heat. Croutons dotted the soup, and a wedge of lemon provided a nice tart addition.

A long-simmered spicy tomato sauce, with plenty of garlic and basil, cloaked the linguini Tria. The al dente pasta was loaded with small meatballs, thin slices of sausage, red and green bell peppers and mushrooms. It was as good as any around.

There are many other pasta selections, including the option to create your own with a choice of pasta types and the addition of chicken, shrimp, sausage, meatballs or veggies.

One specialty is oven-roasted lamb shank. The meat itself was quite tender, but the tomato sauce in which it was cooked had been simmered so long that it was too thick and dominated by rosemary. The taste of the lamb was lost in the overpowering sauce. It also masked the flavor of the accompanying potatoes.

Kabobs are offered with a choice of chicken, beef, shrimp, lamb, meatball, veggies and koobideh (minced and pounded meat). A mixed platter is available if you can't make up your mind.

Dessert does not seem to be a big deal here. When we asked to see the dessert menu, our waiter said that he would see what they had. He returned to tell us that they were serving New York-style cheesecake. It was obviously not house-made and wasn't particularly good.

While we were dining, we noticed a lot of people stopping in for pick-up orders. If we lived in the neighborhood, we'd definitely be doing that too. This is really a very good little restaurant with friendly service and, in the main, very good food. The extra bonus is that it is also very reasonably priced.

Cafe Tria

Where: 488 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa

When: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday

Prices:

Appetizers: $5.95 to $11.95

Entrées: $7.45 to $15.95

Desserts: $5.95

Wine:

Bottles: $17 to $39 (50% off on Thursdays)

By the glass: $5 to $7

Corkage fee: $10

Information: (949) 645-1111 or cafetria.com

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