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SAUCE

Comfort food and atmosphere make Sophia's Grotto inviting

It's 8 p.m. on a Friday at Sophia's Grotto, and the bar is packed to the door with patrons quaffing red wine and waiting for tables. By 11:30, the hostess has her coat on and the room is emptying fast.

In other words, Sophia's is hopping, Roslindale-style.

Amid the local moms and dads and kids, groups of young professionals, and same-sex sweethearts, Sauce feels all warm and fuzzy, like we're part of the neighborhood. Is that the ''Mister Rogers' " theme song we hear in the background? Nope, it's the Gipsy Kings' greatest hits and ''Buena Vista Social Club," playing on repeat.

But who cares if the soundtrack's trite when the place is so inviting? Designed to look like the grotto of its name, it's more courtyard than cave, with clay-tile roof overhangs, brick and terra cotta-colored walls lit by flickering candles, and high ceilings with dark wood beams.

It was designed by Joe Garufi, who owns the place with his wife, Sonia, and a brother, John; Garufi also designed the Birch Street Bistro around the corner, run by yet another Garufi brother. Located in a previously empty space in Roslindale Village's warren of reclaimed brick warehouses, Sophia's feels like a trattoria in Italy, one you might stumble upon in some quaint little town. The smell of the wood-fired oven lingers over everything, and a large black-and-white photo of Sophia Loren observes the goings-on, a glam and benevolent patron saint.

But Sauce is too ravenous to enjoy the atmosphere for long, and the glasses of nero d'Avola and grenache we sucked down at the bar are starting to make us a little punchy. Happily, we're soon seated in a snug booth, where we play Hungry Hungry Hippos with the bread basket.

Sometimes we go to a restaurant for culinary invention, for envelope-pushing, foam-adorned flights of fancy. And sometimes we go because we had a hot dog for lunch eight hours ago and it's Friday and the week was long and we need something tasty and filling before we roll into bed. There's no foam at Sophia's, just white bowls full of steaming Spanish-Italian comfort food, delivered by a friendly red-haired waitress.

Praise the Lord and pass the salt, which chef Alfredo Maravi, a graduate of Antico Forno, Terramia, and most recently Prezza, seems to have an aversion to. Fortunately, there's some on our table, and we shake it like a Polaroid picture.

That sprinkle is all this food needs to rise to the occasion. A dish called spicy mussels is served in a tomato fennel stew with chorizo polenta. The mussels are tasty, if not spicy, and the chorizo polenta is absolutely delicious. We're starting to come down from the ledge.

Next is pizza. We get the Napoli, topped with mozzarella, tomato, and (theoretically) basil. Each pie is named for a region; Italy has most-favored-nation status, but the Barcelona (fresh mozz with seasonal vegetables) and the Santorini (sun-dried tomatoes, broccoli rabe, mozzarella, and goat cheese) are nods to the restaurant's other influences.

The Napoli is fine, but it's not the thin-crusted, crisp-charred fabulousness you hope for from a wood oven. Sophia's is only a few weeks old, though; maybe they're still getting the hang of it.

The New York sirloin is far better than fine, the grilled meat nicely pink in the center and glazed in red wine. The mashed potatoes arrive disappointingly not mashed at all, but thinly sliced. The baby spinach, though, is way more satisfying than it has any right to be, barely wilted and pleasantly bitter.

Wondering what open-face ravioli could be, we order it, and it arrives as a rich deconstruction: long, wide ribbons of perfectly tender pasta in a mascarpone sauce alongside tomatoes, zucchini, shrimp, and scallops. We open our faces and it disappears. Oh, we get it now!

The wine list is good, reasonably priced with a regional bent; dessert -- a light cheesecake with raspberries, and something called chocolate pâté that's served with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce -- adequately hits the sweet spot.

By now, though, we're so sleepy and sated that sugar is almost beside the point. If it weren't for the Gipsy Kings belting out their third rendition of ''Bamboleo," we might even doze off right there.

Sophia's Grotto, 22 Birch St. (in rear), Roslindale; 617-323-4595.

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