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PREACHING TO THE CHOIR

Windsor Terrace newcomer offers spectacular view of church at sunset, Italian menu

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Ah, Windsor Terrace. So near Prospect Park. Friendly neighbors. Decent schools. But the dining options are - let me be generous - only so-so.

Sure, there’s a diner that, after a rocky start, is beginning to serve decent fare. There’s a hotdog place with good franks, a bar that serves tasty burgers, and a couple of long-standing Italian restaurants that are not exactly destination stops.

Sensing the need for an Italian ristorante that offers locals an upscale, yet reasonably priced, meal in an attractive setting, Nat Natale opened Da Vincenzo in August. Natale’s wife, Luisa, designed the lovely square room, coloring its walls in Tuscan inspired tones, adding a wooden bar and chairs and lighting the room with amber-colored glass chandeliers.

If you dine early in the evening, you’ll be treated to a view of the church across the street, aglow with golden light as the sun sets. It’s a gorgeous few moments that you won’t find in any other location - except Florence, perhaps?

In the summer, Natale, who named the eatery in honor of his father, Vincenzo, folds back the wall of glass doors that face Prospect Park West, extending the dining area to the sidewalk and allowing breezes to rustle the tables’ linen clothes.

Like the setting, chef Thomas Musarra’s menu offers carefully cooked, familiar Italian dishes with a few novel touches that elevate a meal.

While the owners and the kitchen are well intentioned, there are a few goofs. For example, Natale owns the Regina Bakery - right around the corner from his eatery - that bakes good country Italian and other breads, but he offers only mediocre, spongy Italian loaves to his restaurant’s patrons. With all the great Sullivan Street Bakery bread and house-baked focaccia served all over the borough, these slices are a letdown. So is the bruschetta, a gift to diners. Although the ripe tomatoes are mixed into a nice, garlicky topping, the slices of toast beneath them are burned.

Leave the little pile of mixed lettuces in a too-sweet dressing on the plate and dive into the two crisp, delicate lobster and shrimp cakes. They’re lightly breaded, full of sweet shellfish chunks and fragrant with fresh parsley. The cakes are great as is, but they are even better with a dab of the red pepper aioli served on the side.

Compared to the seafood appetizer, the eggplant rollatini (thin slices of the vegetable filled with ricotta and mozzarella) - while competently prepared and drizzled with just enough fresh tasting tomato sauce - was just okay.

At Da Vincenzo, there are 13 pasta dishes that range from classic "spaghetti alla marinara" and "penne alla vodka," to a cardiologist’s nightmare: potato gnocchi in a gorgonzola, Parmesan, brie and fontina sauce.

I was pleased with the linguine in clam sauce. In this dish, perfectly tender clams in the shell circled a generous portion of linguine in a rich shellfish broth, liberally laced with garlic.

The tender veal "saltimbocca" was just as appealing as the pasta. Slices of the delicate meat are rolled around prosciutto and heavily scented with fresh sage. The meat is topped with a generous pile of woodsy, chewy slices of shiitake mushrooms in a rich veal reduction flavored with Barolo red wine. Nutty, roasted asparagus complements the entree.

I’d like to rave about the tiny, perfectly cooked lamb chops, too, but the chef included something in the dish that makes me crazy: strawberries. I’m fine with just about any meat and fruit pairing, but couple the delicate sweet strawberry with anything savory and it turns into an abusive little bully, overpowering even an assertively flavored partner. The chef employs blackberries too, and they’re fine - any tart berry will work - but save the strawberries for a deserving scoop of gelato.

You’ll find the Italian ice cream on the dessert roundup, along with other tried-and-true finales like tiramisu, cheesecake and sorbet.

I’d skip all of them for Musarra’s "banana turtle cake." It’s a lofty affair of whipped cream, crunchy walnuts and caramel between chewy, brownie-like layers, that takes its inspiration from the chocolate "Turtle" candies (nuts and caramel covered in milk chocolate). Da Vincenzo’s version is just as gooey and satisfying; the huge slice looks like something you’d find on a Bennigan’s menu. The chocolate isn’t too sweet, and the whipped cream has only a touch of sugar, so it’s a pleasure savored by adult palates.

If you’re not tired of warm chocolate cakes with runny centers, then the bittersweet, crusty version served here won’t disappoint.

Take a pass on the apple tart, though. It’s about as mundane as this pastry gets.

Hopefully, more ambitious restaurateurs will follow Natale’s lead and open eateries on Prospect Park West, too. The locals are waiting.

Da Vincenzo (256 Prospect Park West at Prospect Avenue in Windsor Terrace) accepts American Express, Diners Club, Discover, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $12.95-$21.95. The restaurant serves dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Mondays. For reservations, call (718) 369-3590.

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