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Caffe Graziani

133 Washington St., Salem

Tel: 978-741-4282

Hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 8 a.m.-3 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 8 a.m.- 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 a.m.-1 p.m.; closed Monday

No credit cards accepted

Handicapped access

In 1986, Giovanni Graziani met Paula Gravallese at a hotel in Rome where they both worked. He was the banquet manager at the Sheraton, and she worked on site as a travel agent. A native of Piglio, 30 miles south of Rome, Graziani had already worked as a chef in Italy, England, France, Hong Kong, and Germany. After the couple married in 1988, they decided to open a restaurant near East Boston, Paula's hometown.

In 1991, they opened Caffe Graziani, in a choice Salem location, just blocks from City Hall and the court houses. Salem was still weathering the effects of failed urban renewal projects, and unlike today, there were plenty of empty storefronts. None of that mattered to the bistro's owners, who quickly developed a loyal clientele among downtown workers.

People want consistency when they eat out several times a week, and Caffe Graziani meets that standard. Almost everything is homemade here -- from the bread to the desserts -- by Graziani.

We arrived on a chilly Saturday night, and ordered several dishes. The restaurant was about half full. The service was excellent. At Caffe Graziani, all of the employees are related. Graziani's sister-in-law, Nancy Coletti, was our waitress, and she brought out warm bread sticks that we immediately dipped in olive oil.

As we sipped Pellegrino ($3), our small white pizza ($10) arrived. This was a fine, thin-crust pie, sprinkled with mozzarella and garlic, and draped with red peppers. To make the thin crust, Graziani uses only flour, yeast, sugar and water.

The dinner served as a birthday celebration for my mother-in-law, who enjoyed the pasta fagioli, which was followed by an immense portion of ziti with chicken broccoli ($10.50).

We sampled one another's dishes. The fresh and filling filet of sole ($17) was a double filet, covered with a warm pizzaiola sauce and served with a side of steamed broccoli.

The ziti bruschetta ($9.50), with tomatoes, onions, garlic, olive oil, and mozzarella, was beautiful to look at.

I had a hankering for a rich, cream-based dish, and asked for a half-portion of linguini Alfredo ($5.50). This was large enough to serve as a full portion.

By the time the pasta primavera ($13) arrived we were slowing down, but still relished the ziti with spinach, broccoli, tomato, and radicchio.

We couldn't resist the homemade desserts, so we tried the tiramisu ($3) and berry crisp ($3 ). As we rose to leave, we were delighted, stuffed, and already talking about returning.