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Eat Up on Aisle Four 

Park that cart: This is grocery-store dining at its finest.

Osteria: Supermarket chow extraordinaire.
  • Osteria: Supermarket chow extraordinaire.

The short ribs? Divine. The ravioli? Delish. And the tab? So tiny, we should have brought along a magnifying glass. Sure, the napkins are paper, but the wine list is killer. And talk about your trendy "chef's table": Every single seat provides an up-close view of the open kitchen, where white-jacketed chefs flip their sauté pans with Puck-like panache.

If you suspect we're gushing over the newest neighborhood bistro, think again. The object of our affection is far humbler than that. It's the 18-seat Osteria Cedro Rustico, a small but well-conceived eatery inside the Whole Foods Market in University Heights.

Just as Whole Foods — the world's leading retailer of natural and organic products — is more than just a grocery store, its tiny Osteria is way more than a bland convenience for hungry, harried shoppers. It's an actual sit-down dining spot, smartly situated between the artfully arranged produce, wine, and gourmet cheese departments. It features thoughtful appointments, friendly service, and a small but appealing menu of freshly prepped Italian fare, including salads, antipasti, pasta, and those just-right short ribs, shimmering in a balsamic and black-cherry glaze.

Is this dining in a trendy trattoria? Of course not. This is still a grocery store, complete with clattering shopping carts and the occasional screaming kid. But there is an assortment of gracious amenities: fresh flowers, substantial flatware, white porcelain plates, and Lucite pepper mills, not to mention the contemporary cast-concrete dining counter, where every seat overlooks the spotless kitchen.

Because that kitchen is tin — no room for microwaves, deep-fat fryers, and heat lamps — the menu focuses on fresher, easily assembled fare. Crisp, cool salads are made to order, and pastas are sauced à la minute. And when it comes to more labor-intensive foodstuff, the osteria knows how to take advantage of its resources: Rustic breads are culled from the market's in-house bakery; the Asiago, Havarti, and Parrano (a rich, buttery cows'-milk cheese from Holland) on the antipasto board are sourced from the nearby cheese shop; and mild Italian pork sausage is crafted by the store's own butchers.

The resulting dishes include winners like the first-rate panzanella salad, a colorful toss of toasted bread cubes, red and yellow peppers, red onions, cucumber, and sweet-as-sugar grape tomatoes, in a savory balsamic dressing; and a rustic sausage, pepper, and onion entrée, sautéed to perfection and then piled onto plush, mascarpone-enriched polenta cakes.

Other stars include a seasonal ravioli special, featuring toasted walnuts, tidy cubes of roasted pumpkin, shreds of sharp parmesan, and fragrant sage butter, yielding a spot-on balance of savor and sweetness; a trio of warm, plump, pancetta-wrapped dates, stuffed with creamy goat cheese; and a giant roasted-chicken wrap, zapped with a rich, well-rounded Caesar dressing.

Portions are ample, plating is eye-appealing, and service is speedy and conscientious. But the best part may well be the prices. A simple insalata mista checks in at $3, and those fork-tender short ribs, complete with plenty of herb-roasted potatoes and spears of tender-crisp rapini, are the menu's most expensive item at $11.

And get this, bargain hunters: Tipping is forbidden.

The sense of value extends to the wine list too, where grape fans will find eight by-the-glass choices (including a Super-Tuscan, a Barbaresco, and two Pinot Grigios) priced from $4 to $9. But don't forget, there's an entire wine shop located immediately behind you: Buy whatever you like, and osteria staffers will both pop the cork and provide the stemware — for free.

Also available are $2 imported birras — the crisp Peroni and the darker, more manly Moretti La Rossa — and a small selection of refreshing Italian spritzers ($1.50) and sparkling waters ($1). French-roast coffee is a good bet too: Even the freshly brewed decaf ($1.50) packed a strong, smooth punch.

The uniformly low prices will help you ignore the occasional oversight: the fact that several dishes needed more salt to make them sparkle, or that both the honeydew and the cantaloupe in a prosciutto-and-melon starter were flavorless and hard.

Sweet endings — chosen straight from the refrigerated dessert case — were mostly ho-hum too, including the predictably dryish carrot cake and a disappointing crème brûlée, with its formerly crisp crust now turned limp and its pumpkin custard beginning to weep. The exception was the almond cake, a moist, indulgent spin on tiramisu, with ladyfingers, sliced and toasted almonds, and a sleek mascarpone filling. In a word, yum.

"Maybe we should have bought some to take home?" my dining pal wondered, as we pushed away from the counter. Then she reconsidered. "Let's just consider it a reason to come back again. Soon."

She must have read my mind.

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