| 02 Mar 2015 | 04:28

    there usually aren't many surprises when it comes to italian dining. in fact, between when we pop open a bottle of wine and when we scrape the last crumbs from a plate of tiramisu, almost nothing happens that couldn't have been predicted.

    walking into opus, enzo and giuseppe lentini's second avenue eatery, it might not feel much different; enzo greets customers warmly, the tables are set with heavy white tablecloths and couples huddle close to one another slurping pappardelle with veal ragu. but what is different about opus is what's missing from many of its dishes: gluten.

    the brothers lentini-they previously owned tini just down the block and giuseppi used to man the stoves at tony italian institution elio's-offer gluten-free pizza pies or pastas to make carbo-loading an option for those with gluten allergies or with celiac disease. it might not seem like a big deal, but if you're one of the people affected-or one of the people who has had to sit through the hell of ordering in a restaurant with someone who is-you'll understand the appeal.

    and if you don't care about gluten at all? it's still some damn good food. starters include baked clams ($12), a favorite of my companion on a recent evening, well-made crab cakes ($15) and a plate of roasted red peppers filled with goat cheese and served warm ($10). if you're looking for more bang for your buck, skip the apps (though not the tasty gluten-free focaccia) and go straight for the salads. a pile of frisee with pears, walnuts and gorgonzola in a red-wine reduction was spectacular; fresh, crunchy, sweet and salty, the plate perfectly revved up our appetites. likewise, the bufala mozzarella caprese salad-a standard that was the day's special-was well executed and surprisingly plentiful; another friend, a cheese-and-tomato connoisseur, was almost felled by the plate's bounty. she pressed on, however, as there was pasta to eat.

    the pasta menu at opus seems to be more of a guide than a set-in-stone list of options. enzo himself swung by to inform us that we could mix and match anything we wanted. with options including spaghetti pomodoro ($16) and cavatelli with asparagus, prosciutto and tomatoes ($18), the plates of pasta were pizza-shop size but had the touch of an expert behind the stove. while the special fettuccine with pesto and whole pine nuts lacked the punch we were hoping for, both the fettuccine con creama ($20) and penne with rabbit ($20) inspired plate cleaning. pizzas, including a stand-up, classic margherita ($15 or $20 gluten-free), are well sized and enjoyable but might make a better starter than main course. with so many gourmet pie shops in town, it's smart to focus on what you do best-although until otto starts making its fennel and bottarga pie gluten-free, opus might as well stick with it. dessert options are numerous and feature a deconstructed tiramisu ($8) that did the trick expertly, a nice ricotta cheesecake ($8) that sure made us feel guilty for over-indulging despite being gluten-free and another gluten-free masterpiece: a chocolate mousse than could beat the cocoa out of any other we've tried. if this is how eating with a life-threatening allergy is going to be, we thought, well, it isn't so bad. -- opus 1574 second ave. between 81st and 82nd streets entrees: $18 to $35 212-772-2220