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Bright, cheerful and homey, Valenti's is a new entry on the North Tonawanda restaurant scene. Valenti's, at the edge of the Budwey Plaza, features booths that are almost as big as the portions and friendly service. It also comes with an interesting back story.

Co-owner (with his wife, Lori) and Chef Terry Valenti is a Western New York boy recently returned home from Texas and Florida -- he cooked at Mama Leone's in Manhattan and in resorts in Daytona. In 2003 he took on uber-chef Bobby Flay on the popular "Iron Chef" program. Knocked the socks off him, too.

"It was the parsnips that did it," says Lori. For the show, Terry produced Chilean Sea Bass stuffed with that vegetable (and artichoke hearts for good measure). He even dreamed up a Mango Parsnip Ice Cream that went over very well.

As of right now, though, you won't find the likes of parsnip cuisine on this restaurant's menu. You will find hearty, well-prepared Italian-American specials at good prices like Lasagna ($12.99), Veal Marsala ($13.99) and Linguine with Clam Sauce ($12.99). There are nightly specials listed on the vestibule blackboard and the Friday Fish Fry offers a choice of haddock or grouper.

Even the Minestrone was unusual on our recent visit. It was so thick with vegetables that the spoon stood at attention. More vegetables here than broth. The Garlic Toast ($2.99) was sliced good and thick. Lobster and Shrimp Ravioli ($13.99) was especially tasty with the tiny little dough bundles well-filled with the seafood. It was served with a lobster cream sauce that managed to be thick without being floury.

I opted for the Penne with Greens and Sausage ($13.99) and enjoyed it. The dish was served with good-sized bites of greens and bits of roasted tomatoes. (Let's hear it for the Italian flag!). The sausage was mild -- I detected not a hint of the fennel I expected and not very much garlic either.

But pasta is the big thing here. Find it tossed with broccoli and asiago ($11.99); in Fusilli ala Vodka with chicken ($13.99). Or try Cheese Tortellini ala Chef Terry ($12.99) -- it's tossed with sauteed spinach, prosciutto and artichokes and served in alfredo sauce.

Nonpasta folks might opt for a N.Y. Strip ($14.99). And they will find a good-sized panini menu, as well.

Desserts, our server told us, are not house-made -- and here we were expecting to dig into cannoli. Instead, we made the best of it, opting for rice pudding served with a heaping head of whipped topping and plenty of cinnamon.

Do you have a question about the area restaurant scene? Then ask Janice! Her answers will appear in the Taste section of The Buffalo News on Wednesdays.

email: janiceokun@yahoo.com

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VALENTI'S    

2 1/2 stars (out of 4)*    

WHERE: 537 Division St., North Tonawanda (692-4339). A casual and comfortable restaurant that offers hearty Italian/American food. In 2003,owner/chef Terry Valenti challenged and defeated celebrity chef Bobby Flay on the "Iron Chef" program. No wine or beer as yet. Credit Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.    

FAVORITE DISH: Lobster and Shrimp Ravioli    

NEEDS WORK: Food is of good quality.    

PRICE RANGE: Dinners with chef salad and bread from $8.99.    

SERVICE: Very good.    

HOURS: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday and Monday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.    

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes    

PARKING: In the lot.    

RATINGS: Stars reflect the overall dining experience at the time of The News' visit -- including service, ambience, innovation and cost -- with greatest weight given to quality of the food.    

* indicates that restaurant is so new that this is a provisional rating.