Bryan Richardson
Lorenzo's
3807 N Mississippi
284-6200

You know that Italian deli in The Sopranos where Tony has his sit-downs at the checkered-cloth covered table out on the front sidewalk? Well, Lorenzo's is something like that, but a fancier version of a classic New Jersey shop. And as far as I know, no one has been dismembered in the back of Lorenzo's.

That said, the casual, welcoming vibe of this two-month-old haunt keeps people coming back, whether it be for a shot of espresso, a salami or muffaletta sandwich to go, or a sit-down pasta dinner with a hefty glass of Chianti. If you walk by the restaurant on a warm day, you can't help but be seduced: An open garage door floods the big, boxy space with fresh air, and tranquil diners spill out onto the Mississippi sidewalk.

Because Lorenzo's is four times larger than a typical Italian deli and also operates as a restaurant, first time diners might experience some confusion when they walk through the door--the bistro tables make you think a server will greet you, while casual folk drinking coffee and reading magazines indicate you should head back to the counter. The latter is the case, and once you make the trek, consult the hanging specials board above or the deli case below for a selection of culinary delights. Lorenzo also displays wine on the counter that you can order by the glass or bottle--and if you're not sure what you want, don't hesitate to ask the friendly staff for advice.

Specials change nightly, but they usually have a few salads, several pasta dishes, one meat dish, and an unbeatable antipasta platter. Incredibly delicious, the antipasta comes with tart, pickled vegetables--like cauliflower, onions, and extremely vinegary celery--salty meat slices, dense, sweet-and-tart sun-dried tomatoes, marshmallow-y fresh mozzarella balls, marinated olives, and the crown jewel, a mind-blowing pile of whipped Cannellini beans, which look like mashed potatoes. This unfamiliar delicacy is rich, creamy, airy, spiked with the potent taste of garlic, then drizzled with oil. Spread it on bread, or just roll a dollop around on your tongue.

Salads are creative, like the arugula and shaved fennel salad topped with chunks of salty grilled ricotta and dressed with a sharp, lemony vinaigrette. Likewise, pasta dishes stretch beyond the basics. Spaghetti marinara comes cooked al dente and tossed with flavorful and pleasantly thin red sauce, with whole basil leaves and melty globes of mozzarella. Lorenzo's steak dish is a tender, quality piece of meat slathered in marinara, then topped with melted mozzarella served on a bed of cakey polenta. And while polenta isn't for everyone (I always think of it as a cross between dinner and dessert), this version is moist, buttery, and probably the best I've had.

If you don't want to throw down $40 for a full dinner, lunchtime sandwiches will cost you less than five bucks, and here's the real insider tip: Lorenzo's deli case sells all the components of the antipasta platter (except the amazing whipped beans--bastards!) for extremely reasonable prices. While I occasionally find myself paying up to $10 a pound for pasta salad at Wild Oats or Whole Foods, Lorenzo's sells their marinated vegetables, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, etc. for around five dollars a pound. Take advantage of this incredible gourmet bargain while you can!

So, even though Lorenzo's accent isn't as thick as Paulie Gualtieri's--if you catch my drift--the restaurant adds a neighborhood-joint dynamic that keeps Mississippi's community vibe alive.