Why do we go to chain restaurants for good Italian food when we have places like Cannella's?

Many residents of the Salt Lake Valley know and love this longtime resident of a tree-lined corner along 500 South, just south of the library. But many have never been to Cannella's, and they're missing out. At lunch, when the place has a comfortable, casual feel, and at dinner, when things dress up and the lights sparkle, Cannella's is a place to enjoy yourself.

Italian was the perfect, warming food for the sleety, gray day that we visited Cannella's for lunch. To avoid crowds, we arrived a bit after 1 p.m. and comfortably shared the place with just a few other diners.

There's all kinds of seating: the cushy booth we snuggled into on that cold day; stools along the bar for TV and conversation; tables with window views; even a few seats in the cool, dim basement, right next to the wine cellar (not to mention a patio in front for warm days).

Lunch is casual: You walk in, walk up to the counter and order what you want. Your server will bring it out, keep your glasses filled and bring to-go boxes — which, for me, puts this dining experience into "please tip" territory.

I was glad to see turkey tetrazzini on the specials board. This mild and kid-friendly dish of diced turkey, veggies and cheesy angel-hair pasta was perfect for the two kids we had with us, and a bargain to boot at $7, even with the restaurant's customary $2 split charge added on. Each child got enough pasta that they were full with plenty left over, plus half of a big slice from a loaf of country-style white bread.

My daughter spent most of her time, though, with the delicious broccoli-cheese soup, full of broccoli and onions and Italianized with a creamy broth flavored with salty, intense Italian cheese.

My husband had one of his favorites, the chicken parmesan. A juicy breast of chicken with a thin, crispy coating was smothered in sauce and melted mozzarella cheese, served in a small baking dish with ziti pasta on the side. To start, he had a bowl of minestrone that was full of tomatoes, squash and other veggies in an aromatic tomato broth.

A few words about that sauce: It's thick and rich, as if it's been freshly made, beautifully seasoned and left to simmer for a long, long time, until a succulent ladleful is poured onto your plate.

I had lots of it on my lunch, the manicotti. A long tube of pasta, filled with a smooth, milky blend of cheeses, was covered with sauce and topped with a meatball nearly the size of a baseball. With it I had the side salad, crisp iceberg with chickpeas, kidney beans and pickled beets, topped with a sour, fragrant Italian dressing. I'd have preferred different lettuce, but I liked the way the rest of the flavors blended.

We had dessert in two stages. First, the in-house portion: chocolate beet cake, one of the richest and most decadent of desserts with its two layers of brownie-dense cake thickly frosted with dark, fudgy icing; plus some of the best tiramisu in Utah: rich but not too sweet, with mascarpone that's light and smooth between many layers of espresso-soaked ladyfingers.

Later, we gobbled up stage two, a soft, spiced pumpkin-chocolate chip cookie; and a thick brownie densely studded with chunks of dark chocolate.

Lunch: Daily specials $7, salad $3.50-$8.50, soup $3-$4, sandwiches $6.75-$7.75, entrees $8-$11, pasta $7.50-$8.50, sides $1.75-$6, desserts $1.95-$5. Dinner: Appetizers $4-$12, salad $7-$9, soup $4-$5, sandwiches $9-$10, pasta $11-$14, entrees $14-$21, sides $2-$4, desserts $6.

Stacey Kratz is a freelance writer who reviews restaurants for the Deseret Morning News.

E-mail: skratz@desnews.com