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Who can say what's going to work in this business? Everyone says you can't make it without location, location, location, and then you find a place like Cremona.

Down a dead-end street, tacked onto a dying ex-flea-market mall--why should this place stay in business? What kind of real estate is this? What in the world could they be paying a square foot?

Sure, it's right next door to a first-rate blender repair shop, but unless you're heavy into frozen daiquiris, you probably wouldn't ever find Cremona, just around the corner and down the hall. Still, it's been there, expanding slowly and steadily, for at least 16 years. I remember when Cremona was a little cafe serving customers in the warren of shops--didn't they used to call it "Chelsea Square"? Do they still?--an antique mall before its time. Since then, Cremona added a patio, then covered it and included it in its dining room, giving the current space a confused indoor-outdoor atmosphere with a carpet the color of Astroturf, odd bits of trellis tacked to the walls and unstable furniture.

So, who knows what goes on at night; at noon, the tables are filled and I suspect the truth is, these lunchers could find Cremona in their sleep. It is just funny and funky and friendly enough that I bet everyone there was a regular except me. You can't help but like it, odd as it is.

The food is mostly fill 'er up fodder, but it's offered with snappy, smiling service. The lunch menu limits itself--two or three variations on each shape of pasta, four veal and four chicken dishes, and a list of "lite" food that, sorry, I ignored.

It was one of those storm-threatening spring days that call for comfort within since there's none without--both of us ordered pasta and found just the sustenance we'd needed. Made with real crepes, not pasta tubes, lacy brown and discernibly eggy, folded around a roll of ricotta under a thick mantle of mozzarella, manicotti gave me cause to pause and savor. Tomato sauce lent tang to the comforting custardy blandness. Lasagna was a big square serving cut from a presumed panfull, well-proportioned as to ricotta, bolognese sauce and pasta, not too hot to eat. Salads were chilled to death, congealing the glop of mustardy dressing. But desserts were surprising again--made in-house, the rum cake was tasty, especially if you have a weakness for unfrosted saturated cakes, like I do.

--Mary Brown Malouf

Cremona, 3136 Routh Street, 871-1115, Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday-Thursday 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 5 p.m.-11:30 p.m.

Manicotti $7.95
Lasagna $7.95
Rum Cake $3.00

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