Mangia Near the Mall: Claudiana is a little enclave of solid Italian-American food

G.A. Benton, Columbus Alive

Claudiana Italian Restaurant is one of those eateries - they are abundant in Columbus - with a generic strip mall storefront that leads to a bustling scene of insiders dining on bold, scratch-made food. If you're new to the establishment, as I was to this Polaris-area place, it's like walking into a secret world.

At four-year-old Claudiana, that world is amber-tinted but fairly bright, filled with white tablecloths but the kind of "art" you'd find at T.J Maxx. It has ochre walls, a soundtrack guaranteed to play "Volare," overhead lamps beaming the colors of the Italian flag and mostly mature patrons warmly interacting with staff, who sometimes join their many regulars at the table.

It's also a world that features homemade pasta, familiar dishes and family recipes. In short, it's a world that resembles a nice restaurant in a Little Italy neighborhood.

Wines merit attention, especially the Italian red selection, where good deals abound on appealing bottles such as the soft-textured, eminently quaffable Tenuta Curezza Prine (co-fermented primitivo and negroamaro grapes, a $27 special). Sip some vino, enjoy the warm, crusty bread service and peruse the large but focused menu.

If hot broth is calling, say "I do" to the Classic Italian Wedding Soup ($4). It marries nifty little meatballs, mildly bitter greens and chicken to a soothing broth. Served with homemade croutons on the side, it's one of the best around.

The best part of the pleasant Claudiana Salad ($3.50) with decent lettuces is the interplay of its perky vinaigrette with creamy feta cheese. The worst part is canned olives.

Chicken Piccata might sound like everyday fare, but at Claudiana it's special - and should be, with a $19 price tag. Two hefty, lightly flour-dusted boneless breast pieces are perfectly pan-fried to tender and drenched in a thick and rich sauce invigorated by lemon juice and capers. The side is lovely, al dente ribbons of handmade pappardelle pasta tossed in a garlicky cream sauce that the menu calls "fettucine alfredo."

Menu veracity was more of an issue with the huge Ravioli alla Viktoria ($16). Described as having a "creamy pesto sauce," my homemade pasta pockets filled with an Italian cheese blend were dominated by a heavy-duty cream sauce with minimal pesto character.

When my enormous homemade Spaghetti with Meatballs ($15) was finally delivered (don't count on snappy service), it looked so great, I couldn't wait to dig in. And it was love at first bite with excellent red sauce and a cheesy and just-tender meatball (two large ones come per order). At second bite, though, I realized I had a plateful of overcooked pasta strands robbed of all desirable texture.

If you're a seafood fan and Cioppino is a nightly special and you don't mind the $36 tab, get it. It's an imposing school of fish - a lobster tail, shrimp, mussels, clams, calamari, tiny scallops plus big hunks of cod and tilapia - of decent quality but expertly cooked. The piece de resistance elevating it from a satisfying dish to a wonderful stew: a fantastic tomato broth so zesty, thick, rich and complex that I would've eagerly wiped the bowl clean with the provided crostini had I been able to finish the feeds-two serving.

Good thing I saved room for dessert, because the house Tiramisu ($7) exhibited a delicate balance between the subtle notes of espresso, cocoa and Marsala wine that accented its soft, cakelike construction built with mascarpone and ladyfingers.

Bottom line: Claudiana might not be a perfect world given its foibles and inconsistencies, but it's definitely a world worth visiting - which I plan on doing again soon.

Claudiana Italian Restaurant

8475 Sancus Blvd., Polaris