INTERNATIONAL HOUSE OF PAN-LATIN

I'm always wary of restaurants purporting to offer dishes representative of more than one country. I'm not talking about highfalutin joints where Norman Van Aken and Roy Yamaguchi whip up fare fusing cooking traditions and ingredients from more than one world region; I'm talking about restaurants whose menus globe-trek from bouillabaisse to tandoori, often getting lost in translation in between. There aren't many chefs with the culinary prowess to expertly prepare such disparate dishes.

So prospects were hardly peachy as I entered this clean, pleasant, apricot-hued restaurant in the heart of Dr. Phillips, though the scrummy cakes and pastries in the large display case had me thinking of post-meal indulgences even as I made my way to a booth by the window. At least dessert will be good, I thought to myself.

A closer inspection of the menu revealed that, with the exception of the Lebanese-influenced shawarma ($7.50), the majority of dishes were either Italian or Venezuelan. So much for 'international.â?� The beef shawarma, however, was surprisingly good. The meat may not have been stripped from a vertical rotating spit, but the morsels were nicely seasoned and the seared pita was layered with hummus and plenty of parsley. The cachapa ($5.25), a folded fried corn pancake stuffed with chewy mozzarella-like queso de mano, will please diners who like a little sweet with their salt and is equally appropriate as an appetizer, breakfast item or dessert.

The breasts of the chicken parmigiana ($10.25) aren't pounded and breaded as one would expect. Rather, they're simply grilled, topped with marinara and formaggio and served with super-cheesy and buttery fettucine alfredo, which was an absolute guilty pleasure. It kept well the next day, and I lamented the fact that I didn't order an extra side of it.

The Venezuelan pot roast ($8.99), conversely, was such a failure that Hugo Chavez himself would probably think twice before serving it to Dubya. It took a long time before the dish arrived ' knowing that pot roast is slow-cooked to achieve the desired tenderness, I didn't mind waiting. But the two rounds of beef smothered in bland gravy were tough to cut through, and the accompanying fried green plantains were like chomping on drywall, made soluble only by a giant gulp of tart passionfruit juice ($2.99).

Desserts used to be their forte, but when I tried ordering one of their extravagant gelato-based cappers, I was told they were no longer available. After further prodding, I learned that new owners recently took over the place, which also explained the disparity between the dine-in menu and the takeout menu, the latter being a vestige from previous ownership. Looks like a little more emphasis will be placed on Italian fare in the coming months; I just hope the quality, or quantities, of the desserts don't suffer as a result of the change.

Regardless, I settled on the caramel-topped Napoleon ($2.99), which was far from dynamite. The pastry had a firm, not flaky, consistency and just one layer of cream filling. A shiny scoop of tiramisu- flavored gelato ($1.25) was smooth and creamy, but nothing to write home about, whether home is Rome or Caracas.

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