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Comfortable clutter

Sooner or later, chances are you'll end up at White Wolf Cafe on a Saturday night. It might be to catch a cappuccino and dessert after a show at Theatre Downtown, which is right up the block. Or maybe to celebrate a special occasion with a group of friends around one of the bigger tables. From an outdoor vantage, you can watch activity along the strip of Orange Avenue that's an artsy jumble of antique and gift stores. There are a half dozen marble-top tables outside on the sidewalk, buffered from traffic by rows of potted plants.

This antique-market-turned-cafe on the fringes of downtown has become a landmark hangout since opening in 1991, known for its quirky, romantic setting and its easy pace. The comfortable clutter of antique armoires, framed photographs, books and chandeliers add more than ambience. If you like a piece of furniture, the restaurant will likely sell it to you.

Evening entertainment on Thursdays through Saturdays, usually an acoustic guitarist, helps to set the scene that's suitable for drinks as well as full-blown dinner. The eclectic menu includes vegetarian burgers, Middle Eastern mango-nut tabouli, low-fat focaccia pizzas and Moroccan chicken salad with almonds, raisins and bananas.

Inconsistency has been a recurring problem, which we experienced on our visit. Our meal got off to a great start when we took our waitress' recommendation for the "bianca lavosh" ($7.50), a whisper-thin cracker-crust pizza, topped with delicate portions of mozzarella, Romano, spinach, tomato and feta. Brushed with olive oil and dusted with minced garlic, it was sizzling, steamy and delicious.

For entrees, our waitress urged us to try the popular three-cheese lasagna ($9.95), as well as chicken and mozzarella brioche ($10.95). We were stunned when less than five minutes later, we had both dishes at our table. But the outside of the lasagna was only vaguely warm and the inside was cool -- it obviously had not been prepared to order. Had it been served fresh, it surely would have been a winner. The flavors were lively and multidimensional, and there was plenty of mozzarella and ricotta.

We flagged down the waitress, who by now was overwhelmed with more customers and tables than anyone should have to manage. She offered to take the lasagna back to the kitchen to be warmed up, but it was a good 10 minutes before she returned with it.

By then, we were finished with the brioche, which was a delicately seasoned chicken breast, baked inside a baguette of French bread with melted mozzarella. Everything that was good about this dish seemed to get lost in the excessive portion of bread. The menu promised it would be "smothered" with marinara, but the portion of sauce was too slim to make an impact.

White Wolf Cafe generally does an outstanding job with its mousses, layer cakes, cheesecakes and tortes. On the night we visited, apple pie a la mode ($5.25) was no exception. The crust had a brown-sugar/cinnamon bite, and the baked-apple filling was sweet and decadent. Vanilla-bean ice cream melted dreamily over it all.

Although White Wolf Cafe's wait staff is generally friendly, that doesn't make up for requests not being met in a timely manner. But the atmosphere is charming and relaxed enough that this small restaurant will remain a favorite midtown destination. Keep in mind that the noise volume inside can be too high for relaxed conversation during peak periods and especially when there's entertainment.

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