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Destino Scores Points With Service and Atmosphere, but food has not quite come into its own yet

As I sat down inside "Destino," a neighborhood-friendly Italian restaurant at 50th Street and 1st Avenue, I first noticed an elderly woman speaking with her waiter about which wine to order. The waiter remembered which wines she ordered the last time she dined there, and suggested a glass that she would like based on her past preferences. I was pleasantly surprised, as I was throughout the evening, by the impeccable service. Our waitress was attentive, but not overly so.

Destino's atmosphere is romantic ? perhaps overly so ? because the lights became dimmer and dimmer as our evening wore on. One of the most prominent features of the narrow dining room is the ceiling decorated with Renaissance-style paintings reminiscent of Raphael's work. After sitting down, we received a plate of three pieces of bruschetta, a simple creation, but a nice touch. My companion and I ordered glasses of the house Riesling ? a delicious summer wine with strong notes of grapefruit.

I had mixed feelings about the appetizers. First, the insalata di mare, served with shrimp, lobster and calamari in a lemon and oil vinaigrette, was plated beautifully in a tower-like formation. I was impressed by the tenderness of the calamari, but could not really taste the small pieces of lobster, which were underrepresented in the dish. We also ordered the "Polpettine di Mario" Destino's most popular dish, and an Italian favorite: meatballs. The sauce itself was hearty, chunky and would have passed my Italian grandmother's test. The meatballs, however, were monotonous, a bit overcooked, and memorable more for their size than their bite.

I had the Chicken Martini as an entree, which again was notable for its sauce - a lemon vermouth concoction that I could have eaten with a spoon. But the parmesan encrusted chicken was soggy, not very flavorful, and the one-tomato garnish struck me as odd. My companion had the roasted lamb chops, which were tasty and well-spiced but a bit dry.

For dessert I had the tiramisu; the flavors were predictable, but the lady fingers had a fluffy texture and just the right amount of sweetness to end the meal.

Overall, the dining experience here was pleasant. With the fairly-quiet, candle-lit dining room, Destino is the perfect atmosphere for a romantic date. But if you're Italian, don't expect the food to taste like Grandma's.

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