We were on our way somewhere else when Caffe Molise pulled us in. More specifically, the cafe's outdoor tables in Dinwoody Plaza pulled us in.

It was a beautiful fall day with just a breath of coolness in the breeze, we had the kids with us for lunch and the spacious, secluded plaza seemed the perfect place to give us all a nice, non-fast-food meal without the stress of being inside.

We were right, too. The kids wandered around the plaza (a public thoroughfare that Caffe Molise leases) while we waited for our meals, enjoying the sun-dappled space and the modern-style fountain that empties into a little pool.

But when the meals arrived, the kids sat right down to eat, just like the big people. Caffe Molise's lively Italian food deserved our full attention.

We started with the polenta, four thick wedges of straightforward, grainy and tender cornmeal cake sitting in a light tomato sauce studded with whole roasted garlic cloves. The cloves, which dissolved into a creamy paste when I cut them, added a nutty depth and richness to the sauce, a full-flavored accompaniment to the milder polenta. It was the kids' first taste of polenta, and I was surprised how much they enjoyed it, having seconds and even thirds.

Having said that, we wouldn't necessarily have needed the appetizer at lunch, thanks to the basket of warm, crusty rolls with butter that our server brought soon after we were seated.

Caffe Molise has no kids menu, so our girls shared an order of spaghettini al pomodori, thin al dente noodles in a basil and garlic tomato sauce in which the tomatoes were nicely mild and sweet rather than acidic. Our server divided it, delivering each girl her own plate.

My husband couldn't resist the lasagna, and Caffe Molise's version of this classic is a nice one, with the usual beef, ricotta and noodles given a new shine with the addition of asiago cheese and mildly spicy sausage.

I think I got the best meal of the day, though, with my plate of gnocchi di patate in tomato cream sauce. Those of you who've never tried these little Italian potato dumplings should hustle down to Caffe Molise for a plateful. They're the size of butter pats, and more savory than pasta, with a creamy, earthy finish. They were set off beautifully by the tomato-cream sauce, which was fresh and light, touched with just a little cream to give it added richness (not the glutinous pink Alfredo you might find elsewhere; in this sauce, the tomatoes are still the star). On top was a generous sprinkling of roasted pine nuts.

Desserts are made fresh daily; the menu says they're "not to be missed," and boy, is that right. I loved the tiramisu, a superior version of this Italian standard, rich with not-too-sweet mascarpone and ladyfingers, generously soaked in coffee.

But the husband and kids were nuts for the wonderful dark chocolate mousse. This highly indulgent treat takes already-rich mousse up a notch or two. Not even sweet when it hits the tongue, the first impression this dish gives is of deep, dark chocolate richness. Then the sweetness kicks in and spreads. If you have some, take small bites to savor its frothy delights.

Appetizers $4.95-$8.95, salads $9.50-$13.50, pasta $8.95-$13.95, panini $8.50-$9.50, desserts $4.95-$5.95.

Rating: ***

Where: 55 W. 100 South

Hours: Lunch: Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.

Dinner: Sunday-Thursday, 5:30-9 p.m.

Friday-Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m.

Brunch: Sunday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

Payment: Major credit cards accepted

Reservations: Accepted

Phone: 364-8833

Web: www.caffemolise.com

Wheelchair access: Easy

Stacey Kratz is a freelance writer who reviews restaurants for the Deseret Morning News. E-mail: skratz@desnews.com