By Amy L. Carlson   Published Jun 27, 2005 at 5:41 AM Photography: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography

{image1}There is something about mom-and-pop-style Italian restaurants -- from the checkered tablecloths to the Frank Sinatra photos on the walls -- that make you feel like you are in someone's home, waiting for mamma to come over and pinch your cheeks between stirring the red sauce.

Milwaukee is fortunate to have a couple of these heart-warming restaurants, but a tiny all-time neighborhood favorite, Albanese's, 701 E. Keefe Ave., will keep you coming back, time after time, for the most flavorful homemade marinara in town, and homemade pastas that would make Italy proud.

Tucked into a corner of busy Riverwest, Albanese's is not glamorous, and some diners may be dissuaded by the fact that smoking is allowed throughout the restaurant, but it serves up some of the best food and hospitality you'll find anywhere. And wine; don't forget to order a carafe of their famous house red wine.

A good measure of a restaurant like this is its red sauce. You can have the best homemade pasta, gnocchi and meatballs in the world, but if your red sauce is bland, the dining experience will just be average. Good marinara, which literally translates to "sailor's style" is a tomato-based sauce simmered with garlic, olive oil, oregano, and basil which originated in Naples after the Spanish brought the tomato back from what is now Mexico.

While Italian cooking features many other types of sauces and cooking styles, many old-style Italian-American restaurants feature dishes which rely heavily on their house marinaras. Albanese's marinara makes sampling each of their red sauce-based dishes a mouth-watering experience.

{image2}On two recent visits, we had the garlic bread ($2.75), the scungili (conch) ($5.75), the rice balls (or arancini) ($4) and the small antipasto salad ($5.75).

The garlic bread was hearty slices of sesame-studded French bread, lightly toasted with the perfect amount of garlic. Both the scungili, which came with a light Italian dressing marinade, diced onions and tomatoes, and the antipasto (pepperoncinis, black olives, marinated mozzarella and pepperoni), were simple and delicious.

But the rice ball, a house favorite, was by far the best we've tried; rich and delicious, with just a hint of ground beef, peas and Italian spices, lightly fried, and covered in Albanese's marinara. Albanese's rice ball is a delicious way to begin your meal.

Entrée selections feature an extensive list of pasta choices made with Albanese's excellent egg noodles. Diners can choose from meat sauce, mushroom sauce, clam sauce, garlic butter or oil, and olive oil and butter to top spinach noodles, gnocchi, ravioli or spaghetti.

There are also pizzas and house specials, including an Italian fish fry on Fridays (Italian breaded haddock, $8.95, or Italian cod, $8.50).

On our visits, we sampled the pasta with meatballs ($8.25) a hearty plate filled with delectable pasta and sauce, showcasing two large, flavorful and fork-tender meatballs, made with a ground mixture of veal, pork and beef.

Ravioli in mushroom sauce ($8.25) featured large cheese stuffed raviolis with a buttery garlic mushroom sauce that was heavenly with a little parmesan cheese sprinkled over the top.

A weekend special of chicken parmesan ($10.50) highlighted a moist piece of chicken with fresh melted cheese and red sauce on a heap of delicious egg noodles; and mostaccioli and meatballs ($8.95) showcased light, flavorful tubes of pasta in the house marinara. Portion sizes are generous, and most diners will be happy to take enough leftovers home for a good-sized lunch the next day.

Service at Albanese's is friendly and fun and you will never feel rushed to give up your table. Come weekdays or weekends to enjoy a relaxed, hearty meal with friends or an affable first date, but make sure you check out this Milwaukee classic. And try the rice ball.

Albanese's is open Monday through Friday 5 to 9 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 5 to 10:30 p.m. Smoking allowed. Good vegetarian selections available. For more information on Albanese's, call (414) 964-7270.