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THAT'S THE WAY THE MEATBALL BOUNCES

No question that Italian wins out over Chinese and Mexican as the favorite food of Tampa Bay diners. There are a stubborn few who can resist the smells of garlic and oregano and the chance to twirl spaghetti on a fork, but for most of us Italian food is warm, spicy, fun and affordable. And plentiful. Sometimes the Nibbler thinks it's easier to dance the tarantella than keep up with the sources of Italian food new, old and in transition.

So here's an update on those you think might be the same but aren't:

Amore Restaurant, which set an ambitious menu in a tony blue setting at Northwood Commons (McMullen-Booth and Enterprise roads, Clearwater) a few years ago, is in new hands.

New owners Tom Mazzella and Russ Fels started out running the deli next door, Lucrezia Gourmet Foods (725-9499), doing uptown take-out entrees and making a lot of items from scratch. They crack olives, pickle vegetables, make mozzarella and bake Napoleons. They'll slowly be introducing their favorite sauces and dishes at Amore, Mazzella says, and the name will remain for now. Dinner prices range from $9 to $13.95.

Redecoration and menu revisions are now complete at La Trattoria (1352 U.S. 19, Palm Harbor, 786-6140), formerly Delgato's World of Pasta. New menu keeps some previous favorites such as the soups, sauteed escarole, soups and lamb shank cacciatore, and adds more shrimp, fish and veal. Dinner prices range from $4.95 to $12.95.

Caffe Italiano Pizzeria & Ristorante (1921 W Bay Drive, Largo; 585-2112) has an expanded and varied menu under new owner Carmine Catalano, from spinach ravioli to fettuccine with conch. Most dinners range from $4.95 to $9.95, with smaller orders at lower prices for seniors and children.

Halloween scare

They're baaaaaack! Yes. Be warned, McRib, the barbecue sandwich that wouldn't die, has returned just when the Nibbler thought it was safe to sneak back under the golden arches.

Actually, McRibs are only haunting the burger chain for a seasonal promotion through November, and they do have their fans, says Tampa area McDonald's manager Rick Grimord. "It's got a solid following. People like the taste difference," he says, but it's not enough to be permanent.

Don't count The Nibbler among the even part-time smitten. First there's the semantics that have stymied the nationalization of barbecue: If you think chili is a fighting word with Texans and New Mexicans, try coming up with a barbecue standard.

McDonald's tried several years ago and not enough of us saluted to install McRib on the menu. The current version ($1.89) is no better by me. Sauce mixes sweet, smoke and pepper but was laid on so thick that the sandwich was a literal mess, a four-napkin disaster.

The cornmeal-dusted bun is better than average, but the pork patty is thin and bland and its oblong faux rib form prompts mystery-meat jokes.

The Nibbler thinks McD would do better to forget "ribs" and just shoot for a sandwich of sliced pork and call it McQ, McLoin, McPig, anything but . . .

On the other hand, two other menu items are in genuine testing and may eventually make the grade.

One is the burger chain's attempt to co-opt America's other favorite snack: pizza. The other new product may be easier to perfect: carrot and celery sticks.

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