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Our Gourmet: An Italian family dinner at Sabatino's North in Derry

1 East Broadway, Derry, N.H.

He's been off at college for a couple of months now, and we've grown wistful for the always impressive spectacle of our Teenage Bottomless Pit at the dinner table. So it was our pleasure to have him along for our most recent dining excursion.

Looking for a location that would please all three of us and be easy to get to on our way to return him to school, we homed in on Sabatino's North, a comfortable, attractive Italian restaurant in the former train station in downtown Derry.

The restaurant and bar are all in a big, open room inside the station. Despite the open space, noise levels were acceptable. The lighting was low on the Saturday night we were there, and baseball and football games were on the big screen TVs over the bar.

We were seated right away, and presented with a small loaf of warm, crusty white bread. TBP seized the bread immediately, and found the cruet of seasoned dipping oil to be a perfect accompaniment. We agreed.

He thought the second loaf was just as good.

Sabatino's menu (which is slightly different from the version found online) covers all of the Italian bases you'd expect. There was also a short seasonal specials menu that was tempting (the butternut squash and chicken risotto caught my eye), but we decided to stick with the main menu.

Never shy about ordering appetizers, TBP ordered the baked meatballs ($6). Two large meatballs were made from a light, fine-textured mix of meat, bread crumbs, egg and Italian seasoning. Topped with mozzarella and baked in tomato sauce, they were quite good, and turned out to be a lighter appetizer dish than I expected.

I ordered Pasta Fagiole ($5), a large bowl of creamy tomato/pork broth with pasta and white cannelini beans. I was disappointed; I thought it was rather bland, in color, texture and flavor.

The Dining Companion, on the other hand, won the appetizer round with her Eggplant Rollatini ($9), an almost-dinner-sized portion of rolled eggplant stuffed with a delicious ricotta cheese mix and baked under mozzarella and sauce. We've enjoyed this dish at a few other places, and although opinions varied on the ideal filling, Sabatino's version was as good as any we've had.

Thinking I could hitch a ride on TDC's eggplant success, I ordered Eggplant Polpetta ($16), which featured eggplant stuffed with seasoned ground beef and cheese, then baked, like just about everything else, with mozzarella and red sauce. (All entrees come with a choice of several pastas.) "Polpetta" translates as "meatball," and the beef mixture in this dish may have been the same as TBP's meatballs. It was again lightly flavored, with oregano being the dominant spice. Unlike the meatballs, in this dish the meat was unformed, and it was of such a soft, pasty consistency that I felt compelled to check that it was hot to reassure myself it was cooked. It was, and it was tasty, but I was slightly rattled by the experience.

TDC's entree was Chicken Saltimbocca ($21), pan-seared thin chicken fillets stuffed with prosciutto and cheese, topped with a butter-garlic wine sauce. It was a nice counter to all the mozzarella-and-red-sauce dishes we had ordered.

TBP may be learning a lot in his first semester at college (we're keeping our fingers crossed), but he hasn't learned to be adventurous in an Italian restaurant — he ordered his standard chicken parm, though at Sabatino's, it's Stuffed Chicken Parmigiana ($18). The dish was good, with a deep-fried chicken fillet enclosing the same excellent ricotta filling that TDC got in her eggplant appetizer.

The parm was the largest of our three entrees. Unfortunately, TBP hasn't learned to pace himself, either. By the time it arrived, he was pretty well stuffed thanks to the bread and meatballs — that, and the lunch-sized "snack" of leftover steak tips he ate before we left home.

As much as he liked it, the boy was barely able to manage half of the chicken before asking to have the rest (and all the accompanying pasta) boxed up.

Our hunch was the leftovers (and the cannoli he ordered to-go for dessert) never made it to the fridge in his dorm room — by the time we got him back to school, he seemed to be getting his second wind.

Our desserts were delicious. I ordered the Limoncello Tartuffo ($6.50), a cool, palate-cleansing ball of lemon gelato with a limoncello center. TDC ordered Tiramisu ($6), which in this case was a cup containing all the moist, creamy and espresso-laced ingredients you want in a Tiramisu. These are commercially prepared desserts, but they're favorites in our book.

Sabatino's North has a lot going for it: Good location, a great space, a friendly and efficient waitstaff. We thought the food was a notch below the best Italian restaurants we've visited, and a touch inconsistent, but overall good and abundant. Our three courses for three with one glass of wine came to $108, but there is a children's menu and plenty of lower priced dishes, which would make Sabatino's a good spot for a nice family dinner.

Just ration the bread and make sure the kids don't eat before they leave home — no matter how big they are.

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