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-- Linda Kavanagh

Linda Kavanagh is a freelance food and wine writer and columnist for Fairfield County Magazine and Food and Beverage International.
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Linda Kavanagh Oh no, not another "dining al fresco" piece! We all know Fairfield County is situated on charming Long Island Sound and that waterside views while you dine are more popular than ever.

But, I guess it must be the New Yorker in me that can care less about the sea air, the sound of the rippling waves, or watching the boats pull into the harbor. Give me a fenced in area, a table and a chair, some great food and wine, enjoyable company, and let me just pull up a sidewalk!

I'd much rather be in the middle of a bustling town watching the passers by and the day unfold. A few favorite spots come to mind and against my better judgment I am going to let my readers in on a few of my preferred, while not-so-well-known, outdoor dining destinations.

Tartine, one of Westport's newest gems, has given classic French cuisine new life in this tiny bistro owned by Franck Girard, formerly of Restaurant Jean-Louis in Greenwich. Chef Dana M. Smith Jr., a California Culinary graduate, began his career at Alice Water's famed Chez Painese restaurant in Berkley, California.

Dana has received numerous stars for his innovative cuisine at such local favorites as Labee, Chez Noue and Assaggio's. Since opening Tartine in June of 2001, Dana has helped to demystify the art of French cuisine. Tartine's menu reflects traditional French country cuisine while infusing more modern ingredients and combinations, as seen in the restaurant's new summer menu.

Frisee salad with French blue cheese and walnuts, grilled camembert and dry sausage on a bed of arugula and pear, grilled swordfish with lemon caper butter, lamb tenderloin with potato croquettes, a fabulous assortment of cheeses, and refreshing fruit sorbets swimming in a glass of various grapas and liqueurs are just some of the stand-outs.

The patio, which overlooks the Post Road shopping arena, is fenced in with low-level lattice work and is covered, letting just enough sun in as not to require dark sun glasses and a portable air conditioner. Approximately 20 seats are available and service outside is just as superior as it is inside. Open for weekday lunch and 7 nights for dinner.

Tartine - 7 Sconset Square, Westport, 226-2647.

Running Fish, New Canaan's surprise hit this past year, has given this sleepy little restaurant town a huge boost. What was once a fine dining restaurant space (one failure after another --go to The Roger Sherman Inn if you're looking for that sort of thing) has now been transformed into a hip, casual seafood house.

Owner Jim Angi took a chance when he knocked down the dining room dividers, decorated the interior with vibrant colors, added nautical paraphernalia, and made his menu completely seafood driven. There are salads and one chicken and meat dish. Other than that, you better have a hankering for seafood if you plan on visiting this restaurant.

After a few good reviews (critics still don't seem to get what they have accomplished --critics never do though) the locals have caught on and turned Running Fish into a true blue friends and family gathering place. After much paperwork and town politics, Angi has finally secured his outdoor license and opened up the patio and the surrounding lawn area to the public for outdoor dining and cocktail service.

Signature dishes include the paella (meant for two -- but on a good day I can polish off the whole thing myself), pistachio encrusted Chilean sea bass, shrimp and lobster risotto, blackened sea scallops, marinated seafood salad, steamed clams and mussels, and the best strawberry shortcake, biscuit style, with heaps of fresh whipped cream -- a must! Open for lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday.

Running Fish - 62 Main Street, New Canaan, 966-0101

Ignore the Department of Motor Vehicles and Route 7 where it meets the Super 7 Connector in Norwalk and you have a sensational place for an authentic Tuscan meal on the terrace. No foolin'. Tuscan Oven, probably one of the most underrated, or most forgotten, restaurants is true to their name -- and then some.

In true Italian fashion, the portions are more than ample, the ingredients are always fresh, and everything is homemade. Capers, anchovies, olive oil, pasta prepared al dente, sauces that stew all day long and meats that are slow-braised, are just a few of the ingredients and reasons why Tuscan Oven is a stand-out restaurant.

The large menu embraces all that is good in the world. Okay, maybe that's a bit dramatic, but traditional Tuscan dishes such as Panzanella salad (with grilled bread), Margherita pizza, butternut squash gnocchi (dumplings) with sage butter sauce, veal scaloppini with proscuitto and fontina cheese and porcini mushrooms, and linguini with white clam sauce are all done to perfection here.

On a warm sunny afternoon though, you can't beat a chilled bottle of Terre di Tufi Vernacia with house-cured salmon over garlic crostini, beef carpaccio served with a lemon and extra virgin olive oil dressing, topped with arugula, roasted peppers and shaved parmigiano cheese, and seafood salad with calamari, scungili, shrimp, crisp vegetables dressed with fresh lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil -- all on their lovely patio.

Owner Anthony Pirraglia and Chef Brian Limitone must be doing something right. Tuscan Oven has been around since 1994. Open for lunch and dinner 7 days a week.

Tuscan Oven - 544 Main Street, Norwalk, 846-4600

Torina's Cafe and Catering, owned and operated by the husband and wife team of Torina and Peter Luise, is a neighborhood cafe located on the Post Road in Fairfield next to the Brick Walk.

It was originally intended to focus on catering and meals to go, but with 6 tables inside and 4 outside on the patio under the beautiful arbors, why bring that terrific food back to a ho-hum office when you can enjoy it right there? An open kitchen and food display case allow diners to take in the fabulous sights and smells while deciding what to have for lunch that day.

The menu features lots of salads and sandwiches including spinach salad with bacon, onions, mushrooms and gorgonzola cheese, grilled miso chicken salad with fried rice noodles and Asian vegetables, tuna wrap with celery, carrots, cucumbers, fresh herbs and Japanese mustard, a tangy barbeque pork sandwich, and a turkey meatloaf sandwich on focaccia bread. Roasted loin of pork, filet of sole, roast beef, chicken, and salmon filet are prepared "du jour" for lunch and dinner. It's whatever Torina is in the mood to do and what ingredients are available to her that day that will decide the preparation.

Torina's serves 3 meals a day Monday-Saturday and welcomes orders to go via fax or phone.

Toria's Cafe - 1253 Post Road, Fairfield, 259-7411 fax: 9626